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PISA – who made the grade?

December 7, 2010

Students in the Chinese city of Shanghai have topped the rankings in the latest round of the OECD’s PISA international student assessments. The Shanghai students took first place in all three assessment topics – reading, mathematics and science.

The results from PISA 2009 are being announced by the OECD this morning (Tuesday 7 December). Since its first round in 2000, PISA has become perhaps the leading assessment of how well second-level students are doing. The fourth and most recent round of PISA involved 470,000 students in 65 countries and economies – the largest participation yet.

What does PISA do? Essentially, it aims to assess the learning skills of students aged around 15, which marks the end of compulsory education in many countries. Students are assessed for their competence in reading, maths and science, but not in ways that necessarily mirror traditional school tests. For one thing, they’re not tested against a national or school curriculum. For another, they are assessed for their ability to use things like reading and maths skills in ways that will help them throughout their life and career, not just for their ability to pass school exams.  

Given the amount of focus on the need for education reform in China, the strong showing by Shanghai in the latest round of PISA is striking. But it’s important to be clear that the results represent only students in that city, not in China as a whole. By Chinese standards, Shanghai is a developed city and, in terms of China’s education reforms, its schools are well ahead of the curve. By national standards, they’re also extremely well-funded – “… per student expenditure on junior middle schools is eighteen times higher in Beijing and Shanghai than in the poorest provinces”, Unesco reported earlier this year. Shanghai is also in the heart of a region that does well in PISA: In reading proficiency, 7 of the top 16 highest-ranking countries and economies are in East Asia; in mathematics proficiency the region’s performance is even stronger – 7 of the top 11.  

No doubt many of the headlines about PISA over the next few days will focus on countries’ relative positions. That sort of coverage is inevitable, but it’s not necessarily very useful. Viewing PISA solely as an international league table obscures the huge amount of data that sits below the headline figures. A few examples:

 How countries’ performances have evolved since 2000.

  • The impact of social background on how well students do.
  • How girls do compared to boys; and
  • The proportion of students who do well

Over the next few days here on the blog we’ll be looking at some of these issues in greater detail and helping you to explore results from PISA 2009.

A press conference  announcing the results of PISA 2009 begins on Tuesday 7 December, at 10am GMT/UTC (that’s 5am in New York, 11am in Paris, 7pm in Tokyo), and is being streamed live on the OECD website.

 Useful links

 OECD PISA – the Programme for International Student Assessment

 OECD educationtoday blog   – Spotlight on PISA 

OECD work on education

OECD Insights: Human Capital

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