If there’s one word that encapsulates the desires and aspirations of education stakeholders around the world, it is improvement. When the first PISA results revealed the disappointing performance of German students, the country became determined to improve, and shake up, its education system. More recently, after declining results in reading, mathematics and science, Wales introduced large-scale school reform measures with the aim of becoming one of the top 20 performers in PISA reading performance by 2015. While there is no one sure path to improvement in education, this month’sPISA in Focusrelays a positive message: any country can improve its performance and equity in education – and relatively quickly.
This means that improvements in PISA performance are not bound by geography, national wealth, cultural heritage or where the country started off on its way towards excellence in PISA. For example, Singapore, a small, relatively wealthy Asian country (which ranked second in mathematics performance in PISA 2012) has improved its mean score by 4 points per year – as has Brazil, a large, middle-income Latin American country, where two out of three students still do not attain the baseline proficiency Level 2 in mathematics. Countries as diverse as Chile, Germany, Israel, Malaysia, Qatar and Romania have also seen significant improvements in mathematics performance.
PISA results over the years also show that change can happen relatively quickly, and this is good news for governments setting ambitious goals. Look at Poland: its performance in reading, mathematics and science has improved remarkably since the first PISA results – more than 25 score points in all 3 subjects – to the extent that Poland is now among the 10 top-performing OECD countries. Brazil, Bulgaria, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Qatar, Romania, Serbia, Tunisia and Turkey have also made great leaps forward.
And there’s still more good news: improvement in performance rarely comes at the expense of equity in education. When countries show improvements in their performance, it is usually because they have managed to reduce the proportion of low-achieving students. For instance, improvements in mathematics performance in Mexico, Tunisia and Turkey, all of which scored well below average in their first PISA tests, are observed mainly among low-achieving students. This usually means greater equity of education opportunities in these countries. In fact, in the majority of the countries and economies whose mathematics performance has improved over the years, the relationship between students’ socio-economic background and mathematics performance has grown weaker, not stronger.
PISA is a useful tool not only for measuring how students perform now, but how much countries and economies have progressed over time in encouraging – and realising – excellence and equity in education. What eventually makes the difference for education systems is their aspiration to improve, not a desire to be top of the class.