Asian countries top OECD’s latest PISA survey; Ireland improves
By Michael Hennigan, Finfacts founder and editor
Dec 3, 2013 - 11:18 AM

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The OECD’s PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) project 2012 tested more than 510,000 students in 65 countries and economies on maths, reading and science. The main focus was on maths. Math proficiency is a strong predictor of positive outcomes for young adults. It influences their ability to participate in post-secondary education and their expected future earnings. Ireland's ratings improved compared with 2009 and the scores in reading and maths returned to the 2003 and 2006 levels.

Finland fell to 12th in mathematics, which was the main theme this year.  However Finland ranked best in Europe in the other two categories: reading and science.

In 2012, students in Ireland have a mean mathematics score of 502, which is above the average across OECD countries (496). The  mean mathematics score for Ireland is ranked 13th out of 34 OECD countries and 20th out of all participating countries. Ireland’s mean mathematics  performance has increased significantly since 2009, but is not different to the Irish scores in 2003 and 2006. In Ireland, 17% of students have a mathematics score below proficiency level 2, while 11% have a mathematics score at or above proficiency level 5. The proportions of students below Level 2 and at or above Level 5 are about the same as in 2003.

Since 2003, there has been little change in the mean  scores of students in Ireland across the four mathematical content areas described in PISA, although performance in the area of Uncertainty & Data has dropped significantly by 8 points. In both cycles, performance on the Space & Shape subscale is considerably lower than in the other content areas.

Males outperformed females in mathematics in all cycles since 2003; Students in Ireland have a mean score on the computer-based assessment of mathematics of 493, which does not differ significantly from the corresponding OECD coverage (497). Ireland’s computer-based mathematics score is ranked 15th among the 23 participating OECD countries and 20th among all 32 participating countries. About 18% of students in Ireland have a computer-based mathematics score below Level 2, while 7% are performing at Level 5 or above. Males significantly outperform females, by 18 points, on computer-based mathematics in Ireland.

The mean print reading score of students in Ireland in 2012 is 523, which is significantly above the average across OECD countries (498). Ireland’s score is ranked 4th out of 34 OECD countries and 7th out of all 65 participating countries. The print reading performance of students in Ireland in 2012 is
significantly higher than in 2009,
but does not differ from the scores in 2000, 2003 or 2006.

For science, the mean score of students in Ireland in 2012 is 522, which is ranked 9th among 34 OECD countries and 15th among all participating countries. Ireland’s mean science score in 2012 is significantly higher than the mean scores in 2006 and 2009 (508 in both cycles). Ireland’s science performance is significantly above the corresponding OECD average scores in each cycle since 2006.

Between 2003 and 2012, students’ sense of belonging to school has decreased significantly in Ireland, while Irish students’ intrinsic and instrumental motivation for mathematics, their mathematical self-efficacy and anxiety about mathematics have increased significantly.

Shanghai-China, and Singapore were top in maths, with students in Shanghai scoring the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling above most OECD countries. Hong Kong-China, Taiwan, Korea, Macao-China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands were also in the group of top-performing countries.

“With high levels of youth unemployment, rising inequality and a pressing need to boost growth in many countries, it’s more urgent than ever that young people learn the skills they need to succeed,” said Angel Gurría, OECD secretary-general during the launch in Washington D.C. “In a global economy, competitiveness and future job prospects will depend on what people can do with what they know. Young people are the future, so every country must do everything it can to improve its education system and the prospects of future generations.”

The survey reveals several features of the best education systems. Top performers, notably in Asia, place great emphasis on selecting and training teachers, encourage them to work together and prioritise investment in teacher quality, not classroom sizes. They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy in the classroom to achieve them.

Children whose parents have high expectations perform better: they tend to try harder, have more confidence in their own ability and are more motivated to learn.

Of those 64 countries with trend data in maths up to 2012, 25 improved in maths, 25 showed no change and 14 did worse. Brazil, Germany, Israel, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Tunisia and Turkey have shown a consistent improvement over this period. Shanghai-China and Singapore improved on their already strong performance in 2009.

Italy, Poland and Portugal also increased their share of top performers and reduced their share of low performers. Germany, Mexico and Turkey also managed to improve the performance of their weakest students, many of whom came from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This shows that countries can simultaneously improve equity and raise performance.

Giving every child the chance to succeed is essential, says the OECD. 23% of students in OECD countries, and 32% overall, failed to master the simplest maths problems. Without these basic skills, they are most likely to leave school early and face a difficult future. Some countries have succeeded in helping underperformers: Colombia, Finland, Ireland, Germany, Mexico and Poland have put in place systems to identify and support struggling students and schools early, and have seen the PISA scores of this group increase.

Other key findings include:

Gender gap

Boys perform better than girls in maths. They scored higher in 37 out of the 65 countries and economies, while girls outperform boys in 5 countries. The gender gap is relatively small though; in only six countries is it greater than the equivalent of half a year of formal schooling.

The gap is widest among top students, still wide among the weakest students and about the same for average ones. Girls also feel less motivated to learn maths and have less confidence in their abilities than boys.

Between 2000 and 2012, the gender gap in reading performance – favouring girls – widened in 11 countries and economies. Boys and girls perform similarly in science.


Of the 64 countries and economies with comparable data up to 2012, 32 improved their reading performance, 22 show no change, and 10 deteriorated. Chile, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Switzerland and Turkey improved their reading performance across successive assessments.

Across OECD countries, 8.4% of students are top performers in reading. Shanghai-China has the largest proportion of top performers – 25.1%. More than 15% of students in Hong Kong-China, Japan and Singapore are top performers in reading, as are more than 10% of students in Australia, Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Ireland, Korea, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, Norway and Chinese Taipei.


Shanghai-China, Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Japan and Finland are the top five performers in science in PISA 2012. Estonia, Korea, Viet Nam, Poland, Canada, Liechtenstein, Germany, Chinese Taipei, the Netherlands, Ireland, Australia, Macao-China, New Zealand, Switzerland, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, the Czech Republic and Belgium score above the OECD average in science.

Across OECD countries, 8.4% of students are top performers in science and score at the highest levels. This compares to more than 15% of students in Shanghai-China (27.2%), Singapore (22.7%), Japan (18.2%), Finland (17.1%) and Hong Kong China (16.7%).

Schools and students

High-performing school systems tend to allocate resources more equitably across socio economically advantaged and disadvantaged schools.

Teacher-student relations improved between 2003 and 2012 in all but one country, according to students’ reports. The disciplinary climate also improved during the period, on average across OECD countries and in 27 individual countries and economies.

Better teacher-student relations are strongly associated with greater student engagement with and at school.

The share of immigrant students in OECD countries increased from 9% in 2003 to 12% in 2012. Over this period, the performance disadvantage of immigrant students compared to students without an immigrant background but with similar socio-economic status shrank by 11 score points, equivalent to three months of schooling.

The OECD says the PISA results reveal what is possible in education by showing what students in the highest-performing and most rapidly improving education systems can do. The findings allow policy makers around the world to gauge the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with those in other countries, set policy targets against measurable goals achieved by other education systems, and learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere.

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