Launch of PISA 2015 Results


Launch of 2015 Results of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
Volume I: Excellence and Equity in Education
Volume II: Policies and Practices for Successful Schools

6 December 2016

London, United Kingdom

(As prepared for delivery)



Dear Natalie, Ladies and Gentlemen:


We live in challenging times. We are still reeling from a global crash that has pushed the world into a low growth, low productivity trap. We are seeing rising inequalities ─ growing opportunities for some, and precarious poor-quality jobs for others. We are experiencing tidal movements of people fleeing poverty or war, and competing for jobs. We are benefiting from the opportunities provided by the digital revolution, but automation is threatening certain jobs and sectors. These factors are fuelling global turbulence and rising populism: most feel that they are being left behind while a happy few benefit from the fruits of globalisation.


High-quality education is the single greatest tool for empowering people and improving their opportunities and outcomes. That is why, this morning, I am pleased to launch the latest results of the OECD’s flagship Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA). This triennial international survey tests the skills and knowledge of 15‑year-old students, providing the global benchmark for the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems. PISA is an integral part of the OECD’s Inclusive Growth Initiative.


In 2015, over half a million students ─ representing 29 million 15-year-olds in 72 countries and economies ─ took the internationally agreed two-hour test covering science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem-solving and financial literacy. Today, the OECD is releasing Volumes One and Two of PISA 2015, Excellence and Equity in Education and Policies and Practices for Successful Schools, which focus on student performance in science. The final volumes, to be released next year, will focus on student well-being, social skills and financial literacy.


Let’s take a look at some of our key findings.


First, science.


The focus on science is timely ─ with rapid scientific and technological progress, the advent of the Internet-of-things and the prevalence of social media, the ability to understand and discriminate information based on evidence and facts is critical. These days, everyone must ‘‘think like a scientist’’ to navigate the claims and counter-claims bombarding us in everyday life, from nutrition to climate change. In most countries, a growing number of students expect to pursue a science-related career. But science education isn’t keeping up!


Since 2006, standards in science have flat-lined, with less than a quarter of countries improving their performance. And that’s despite a spending increase in OECD countries of 20% per primary and secondary student!


Singapore is the standout performer in science, with Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada the lead performers among OECD countries. But across the OECD, more than one in five students fall short of baseline proficiency in science ─ and in some it is close to one in two. They can’t use basic or everyday scientific knowledge to identify a valid conclusion from a simple data set, an ability we expect from every citizen. Only one in twelve is a top performer and 13% of those come from four provinces in China alone. Yet in Singapore, one in five students master the most advanced scientific problems and demonstrate that they can think like scientists. They benefit from well‑structured, clear and informative science lessons comprising teacher explanations, classroom debates and student questions. And their learning time is productive, giving them the opportunity to build their academic, social and emotional skills in a balanced way. This is something we can also learn from the UK, along with Canada, Slovenia and Australia.


Second, equity.


The second key topic I want to highlight is equity. Student achievements should reflect their abilities and efforts, not their personal circumstances. Yet from 2006 to 2015, no country or economy improved its performance in science and equity in education simultaneously. This is shocking!


Disadvantaged students in OECD countries are, on average, almost 3 times more likely to be low performers than advantaged students. They also tend to spend 35 minutes per week less in regular science lessons, are twice as likely to have repeated a grade by the time they sit the PISA test, and almost three times more likely to be enrolled in a vocational rather than an academic track. But poverty today need not pre‑determine outcomes tomorrow.


Almost one third of disadvantaged students, and even more in the UK, are considered resilient ─ meaning they beat the odds and perform at high levels. And in Japan, Hong Kong (China) and Estonia, the 20% most disadvantaged students do as well as the average student in the OECD area, and better than the most advantaged students in 20 other PISA-participating countries and economies. And we know how they do it. They set high and universal expectations for all students. They keep an unwavering focus on great teaching. They target resources on struggling students and schools. And they stick with coherent, long-term strategies.


The performance of immigrant students is similarly mixed. While they are more than twice as likely as their non-immigrant peers to perform below baseline proficiencies in science, almost one quarter of disadvantaged immigrant students match the performance of the top quarter of students internationally. In Hong Kong (China), Macao (China) and Singapore, more than half of all disadvantaged immigrant students are resilient ─ as are more than one in three disadvantaged immigrant students in Australia, Canada, Estonia, Ireland and here in the United Kingdom. Performance gaps are also narrowing: between 2006 and 2015, the average difference in science performance between immigrant and non‑immigrant students fell by six points.


PISA 2015 data also reveal differences between schools. Disadvantaged schools have fewer qualified science teachers and tend to offer a much narrower range of learning opportunities beyond regular classes. They also tend to suffer more disciplinary problems and a lack of student engagement, such as late arrivals and truancy.


Interestingly, PISA 2015 shows that a privately-funded education is not a guarantee of success. After accounting for the socioeconomic profile of students and schools, students in public schools score higher than students in private schools in science on average across OECD countries and in 22 education systems.


But in terms of equity we cannot overlook the gender dimension, which is the third challenge I would like to mention.


Third, gender.


In science, gender differences remain entrenched. Boys are more likely to be poor performers, but they are also much more likely to be top performers in science. Finland is the only country in which girls are more likely to be top performers than boys in science.


The story here is not about abilities. It’s about different interests, confidence levels and career expectations. Although around a quarter of boys and girls expect to work in science-related fields, boys are twice as likely to expect to work as engineers, scientists and architects; girls are three times as likely to expect to work as doctors, vets and nurses. Data from previous PISA assessments show how these gender differences are reinforced by the attitudes and inherent biases of parents, teachers and even textbooks!


The way forward ─ policy recommendations


There is no single combination of policies that will work for all education systems. And implementation will always reflect the local context. But the major policy directions are clear.

  • Increase support to disadvantaged students and schools. Specific programmes may help spark interest in science among students who may not receive such stimulation from their family. Disadvantaged students also need more time in regular lessons with better teaching. And in countries and economies where students in advantaged schools spend more time studying after school, including Croatia, Italy, Japan, Korea, Macao (China) and Chinese Taipei, governments may need to provide disadvantaged schools with additional resources for free-of-charge tutoring to prevent the development of a shadow education system ─ and to ensure equity in education opportunities.
  • Delay the sorting process. At Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Harry Potter and his classmates were sorted into Gryffindor, Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff and Slytherin on their very first day. An early sorting may be appropriate for students of magic, but it doesn’t always work in the real world! All students, whether disadvantaged or advantaged, immigrant or non‑immigrant, would benefit from a more limited application of policies that sort students into different programme tracks or schools, particularly if such policies are applied in the earliest years of secondary school. The later students are selected and grouped, and the less they repeat grades, the better they are supported by their teachers and the weaker the association between students’ socioeconomic status and science performance.
  • Continue investing in good teachers and empower them to teach effectively. The most successful education systems attract and retain the best teachers, offer adequate compensation, encourage continued professional development, and provide ongoing feedback. And granting schools more autonomy may give teachers more opportunities to adapt their instruction to students’ needs and knowledge.
  • Break down stereotypes. Parents, teachers, policymakers and opinion leaders should actively challenge gender stereotypes about science-related activities and occupations (e.g. ‘‘computer science is for boys’’, ‘‘biology is for girls’’) and increase student awareness of the range of career opportunities opened up by science and technology training.


Ladies and Gentlemen, our objective is clear: to ensure every child, whatever their background, benefits from a quality education. The need is urgent: we are facing high levels of youth unemployment, deepening inequality, growing disenchantment and rising populism. We know what we need to do. And we have no time to waste!