The UK moves up the PISA League Tables in the 2018 results

31 Dec

I        The results

On 2 December 2019, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) published its triennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.  These are tests that 15-year-old students from 79 countries[1] last sat in 2018.    PISA measures (from each of the countries that participates) a sample of 15-year-old students’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.  According to the National Foundation for Education Research (NFER) analysis, the results of UK students in mathematics improved significantly on three years ago.

  • In reading, the UK was 14th, up from 22nd in the previous tests three years ago.
  • In science, the UK was 14th, up from 15th.
  • In maths, the UK was 18th, up from 27th.

Since 2000, PISA has been measuring how well students apply knowledge in and out of school, carrying out real-world tasks as they approach the tail-end of their school years.  On a rotational basis, PISA chooses in each cycle one major domain with the other two being minor ones. In 2018, it was Reading that was the major one with Mathematics and Science being the minor ones.

PISA selects a sample of students (from each country) representative of those participating in the education system.  They range from 15 years and three months to 16 years and two months at the start of the testing season.  An international contractor, chosen by the OECD validates each system’s sampling frame.  The contractor randomly selects at least 150 schools for each subject, with two reserves, unless that country has fewer than 150 schools.

Each country or education system administers the tests.   At least 65% of the sampled schools must participate if the results are to be considered. Education systems can use replacement schools to increase the response rate once the 65% benchmark has been reached.  A minimum of 6,300 students participate.  The international contractor has responsibility for reviewing the student lists, using sophisticated software to perform data validity checks (e.g. expected enrolment and gender distribution) and PISA eligibility requirements (e.g. birthday ranges).  No substitution of sampled students is allowed. Student participation must be at least 80% for a country’s/education system’s data to be included in the league table.

Altogether, 600,000 (circa) students participated.   In the United Kingdom, about 14,000 students from nearly 460 schools and academies sat the PISA tests.

The Far East Asian countries continued to be the high-achieving ones.  In Reading, four (China, Singapore, Macau and Hong Kong) of the five top countries/areas were from Asia, the fifth being Estonia. In Mathematics, the top five – China, Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan – were in Asia.  In Science, four of the top five – China, Singapore, Macau and Japan (fifth in the ranking) – were in the first five, with Estonia ranked fourth.

England topped the league table in the UK in all three subjects.  England, Scotland and Northern Ireland scored above the OECD averages in the three subjects, and Wales below.

PISA also garnered information about 15-year-olds’ well-being.  The UK had one of the lowest scores of any country for “life satisfaction” and for the feeling these youngsters had for “meaning” in their lives.  In England, 66% said that they were sometimes or always worried.  The OECD average was 50%.

II      Comments from the great and good

The great and the good have had something to say about the results of pupils living on these shores.

  • Carole Willis, the Chief Executive of the National Foundation for Education Research (which administered the tests in the UK) said: “Pupils in England have continued to perform well in reading and science and have made significant improvement in maths.” However, she was concerned about why “pupils (in England) were more likely to have negative feelings” and called for further research into this area.
  • Sir Peter Lampl, founder of the Sutton Trust, the social mobility charity, said: “We need to do more to narrow the gap between the rich and poor students, particularly for the highest performing ones.”
  • Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, claimed that the rise in the rankings reflected the efforts of the Conservative government to “have more rigorous primary school assessments. More pupils are now studying the core academic subjects at GCSE”.
  • Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) said that more attention should be paid to the low levels of students’ wellbeing and the “great pressure” experienced by teenagers.
  • Kevin Courtney, joint leader of the National Education Union (NEU) averred that it was too early to draw conclusions about the Conservatives’ changes to education from these results.
  • Paul Whiteman, General Secretary of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT), said that teachers and school/academy leaders deserved credit for the results “given the very difficult circumstances in which they have been forced to operate over the past 10 years”.

[1] China’s score was calculated using the results from four areas, i.e. Beijing, Shanghai, Jiansu and Zhijiang.   These four areas have a combined population of 180 million.

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