Data from international tests rain down in Autumn 2016 like confetti

1 Jan

In the last week of November 2016, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) published its report on the Trends in Maths and Science Study (TIMMS).  A week later, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) – an arm of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – published its findings.   Both are based on a battery of tests which samples of pupils/students took in 2015.

I        TIMMS

TIMMS is a survey of the educational achievements of pupils in years 5 (aged nine-to-ten year olds) and 9 (aged 13-to-14 year olds) in 57 participating countries, as well as comparisons of the curriculum and the teaching of Mathematics and Science.

The national report for England found that while the country’s maths results are now at the highest point for 20 years in both age groups, overall improvement is still lagging behind other countries. Since the first assessment in 1995, England’s score in Maths increased by 12.8% for year 5 and by 4% for year 9. Despite this, the score is behind top-achieving countries who have seen more rapid improvement. The East Asian group of countries continued to perform extremely well across the assessments.

The TIMMS report focused on the pupils’

  • overall performance in Maths and Science
  • performance by pupil characteristics
  • pupil engagement and confidence in Maths and Science
  • school environment, leadership and resources
  • teachers and teaching
  • home environment

It emphasised the link between engagement and confidence in the subjects with overall performance. A large majority of pupils in England reported that the teaching of Maths and Science was engaging or very engaging.  This was in sharp contrast to peers in the five highest-performing countries.

The full report of Tony Greany et al of University College London, Institute of Education can be found here.

Altogether 62 “countries” including Hong Kong in China, participated in TIMMS 2015.   As in previous years, the five East Asian “countries” that participated in TIMSS (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan), together with Russia, performed highly across both subjects and year groups, although there were other countries that did well in one or more areas. A group of ‘fast-moving’ countries (Kazakhstan, Poland, Slovenia and the Czech Republic) saw significant improvements in one or more areas.

England came tenth in Mathematics for year 5 pupils.   Northern Ireland, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taipei/Taiwan, Japan, Russia, Norway and Ireland were in the first nine places.

English pupils in year 9 came 13th in Mathematics.  In the first 12 places were Singapore, South Korea, Taipei/Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, Quebec (Canada), Russia, Kazakhstan, Canada, Ireland, Ontario (Canada) and the United States of America.

In Science, year 5 English pupils came 16th in this international table.   In the top 10 places were Singapore, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Hong Kong, Taipei/Taiwan, Finland, Kazakhstan, Florida (USA) and Poland.  In year 9, English pupils ranked higher, at eighth in Science.   Singapore, Japan, Taipei/Taiwan, South Korea, Slovenia, Hong Kong and Russia were in the first seven places.

The main findings of the UCL Institute of Education for English pupils in the latest TIMMS report were as follows.

(i)         In 2015, the performance of both, year 5 and 9 pupils, in Maths in England was significantly above the TIMSS international mean.

(ii)        Year 5 pupils’ performance in Maths has increased steadily over time, improving with each TIMSS cycle from 1995 to 2015. The increase in England’s score between 2011 and 2015, however, was not significant.

(iii)       The performance of year 9 pupils in maths increased between 2011 and 2015, following a decrease in 2011. As for year 5, the increase between 2011 and 2015 was not significant.

(iv)       For both years 5 and 9, England remains in the second highest-performing group of countries. Seven countries scored significantly higher than England in the year 5 assessment, while six scored significantly higher at year 9. England’s performance was significantly higher than 34 countries in year 5 and 23 countries in year 9.

(v)        The five East Asian countries and Russia were the best in year 9 Maths, the same group as in 2011. In year 5, the five East Asian countries and Northern Ireland were at the top of this league, as in 2011, but with Russia joining the group in 2015.

(vi)       A larger share of year 5 and 9 pupils achieved each of the international benchmarks in England compared to the median across all participating countries.

(vii)      There is evidence that the lowest performers in England are making progress since the proportion of both, year 5 and year 9 pupils, reaching the low international benchmark improved significantly.

(viii)     The relative performance of year 9 pupils in England in 2015 compared to their performance as year 5 pupils in TIMSS 2011 was lower than that found in some comparator countries, including most of the highest achieving East Asian group.

II       Programme for International Student Assessment

The OECD released the results of its 2015 global rankings on student performance in the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. PISA is a worldwide exam administered every three years that measures 15-year-olds’ standards in 72 countries. About 540,000 students took the examinations in 2015.

The examinations are taken by 15-year-olds (pupils in year 10) in three disciplines – Science, Mathematics and Reading. The results revealed that the scores across the pupils in the United Kingdom were down, though the rankings stayed similar to the ranks attained in 2012.

The top five (against those of the UK) in the three disciplines were as follows.

Science 2015 Score Mathematics 2015 Score Reading 2015 Score
Singapore 556 Singapore 564 Singapore 535
Japan 538 Hong Kong (China) 548 Hong Kong 527
Estonia 534 Macao (China) 544 Canada 527
Taiwan 532 Taiwan 542 Finland 526
Finland 531 Japan 532 Ireland 521
UK 509 (15th) UK 492 (27th) UK 498 (22nd)
Average 493   490   493

UK pupils, whose score were above the averages in the three subjects, came 15th in Mathematics (UK score 509 with OECD average score 493), 27th in Mathematics (UK score 492; OECD average score 490) and 22nd in Reading (UK score 498; OECD average 493).  In every case, England did better than Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, coming 14th in Science, 26th in Mathematics and 18th in Reading.

PISA’s research findings were that in the UK, the teenagers (generally) do well in Science, enjoying the subject and wishing to become scientists.  There were other significant findings, i.e. that nearly 50% of 15-year-olds were taught in schools where their headteachers were concerned about teacher shortages.  While the OECD recommends reducing academic selection in schools – through setting and streaming – 91.3% of pupils in UK schools were taught in ability groups.

Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the OECD, warned British ministers to take care about expanding grammar schools.  But Nick Gibbs, the school standards minister, appeared to turn a deaf ear. He stated that the PISA findings could provide a “useful insight” into harnessing the expertise of selective schools.  “We know that grammar schools provide a good education for their disadvantaged pupils,” he remarked.

The government’s own briefing note on the PISA results from John Jerrim and Nikki Shure of UCL Institute of Education, said that one argument made in favour of selective school systems was that they may help disadvantaged pupils to excel academically.  However, evidence from PISA provided little support for the notion that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were more likely to succeed. “Rather, if anything, the opposite may hold true,” the academics said.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD went further observing that there was more selection going on within schools in England than in any other country for which PISA had data.  “Looking at grammar schools is the surface of the issue,” he claimed. “There is a lot of separation of students that happen within schools between classes.”

PISA added a warning note by way of data stating that 45% of pupils – well above the OECD average of 30% – were taught in schools where the headteachers said that there were teacher shortages. Altogether, 22% of pupils in England were taught in schools where headteachers were worried that poorly qualified and inadequate staff members were dragging standards down.

Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former chief inspector of schools, said: “We are falling behind other countries in Science, Maths, Technology and Computer Science . . . We have come from a long way back and are not as good as some of the best countries in the world. Improvement is going to be incremental . . . There is a lot to do. We are getting there too slowly.”

“If you take London out of the league tables, the rest of the UK would not be doing as well. We have to address that issue,” said Sir Michael.

“The big challenge for government is to raise performance in the North and the Midlands. Some big cities are really badly performing. Derby, Leicester, Liverpool and Manchester should be doing a lot better to match what is happening in London.”

While Sir Michael acknowledged that the “rubbish” Science curriculum of the past had been scrapped, a shortage of trained teachers in Mathematics and Science was holding UK teenagers back. About 800 Mathematics and Science teaching posts are unfilled.

“Too often, inspectors see teachers teaching a specialist subject who are not specialists. I am sure that does not occur in east Asia countries,” Sir Michael said.

He called on British parents to be more like those in East Asia and Poland: strict, loving and intensely focused on their children’s education.  “I want to see more tiger mums in England,” he said.

He also said he would like to see more immigrant children from countries such as Poland — who work hard and get good results — coming to some of the worst UK schools in white working-class areas to help raise standards.

“The more immigrant children in some of these indigenous white areas the better, as far as I am concerned,” Wilshaw said.

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