Which countries get an “A” in education?

Singapore tops, US and Norway above average in latest PISA education rankings

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Global sports fans must wait four years between Olympic Games. Since 2000 when it was initiated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), educators need wait only three for the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests of the science, reading, and mathematics skills of 15-year-olds around the world. The sixth triennial PISA was held in 2015; the results of it were released December 6, 2016.

In PISA 2015, the tests were taken by about 540,000 school pupils in 72 countries, each of whom had finished schooling at least equivalent to the American junior-high-school level. The OECD then compiled the statistics of the test results. The tests differ from country to country, so individual country scores were scaled to permit comparison. Initially (for the first PISA in 2000), scaling was to a score of 500 for the average of all countries for each of the three subjects. Subsequent PISA are statistically linked to their predecessors to permit comparison over the years. In 2015, the average score for each of the three subjects was 490. A score of 30 points above the average is more or less equivalent to an additional year of schooling.

The scores for Singapore, unfailingly among the high-scorers in PISA, illustrate how that translates to everyday reality. In 2015, pupils in Singapore attained a science score of 556, which suggests that they are nearly two years ahead of pupils in Norway and the U.S. In mathematics, the gap is greater, with the Singapore pupils’ score of 564 suggesting that they are three years ahead of American pupils with a score of 470 (see table).

Extract of 2015 PISA:
Individual subject scores:
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Rank Country Science Reading Mathematics
1 Singapore 556 535 564
17 Norway 498 513 502
31 USA 496 497 470

PISA rankings and their changes over time reflect factors that should be of concern to educational policy makers. Pupils from poor families tend to perform poorly in PISA tests. But low family financial standing can be overcome, as illustrated by its lower impact on the scores of American pupils. In some countries, scores have declined, most likely due to a decline in the quality of teaching, reflecting the decline in grades of applicants to teacher-training programs.

Over the years, there have been increases as well as declines in individual country scores and rankings. But overall, the average score for all countries has changed little since PISA started in 2000, which suggests that PSIA is a well-designed, fair, and rigorous test. Yet, like lackadaisical pupils who blame the examiner for a test failed, there are educational policymakers who maintain that PISA is unfair. In some instances it may be, as considering its scope and global span, it cannot cover every conceivable influence on education. It’s not a cure-all but rather an indicator of what works and what does not work in a country’s educational policy.

Relevant PISA publications:
• “Singapore tops latest OECD PISA global education survey,” link: www.oecd.org/education/singapore-tops-latest-oecd-pisa-global-education-survey.htm

• “PISA 2015 Results in Focus,” download: www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-2015-results-in-focus.pdf

• “PISA 2015 Results (Volume I), Excellence and Equity in Education,” OECD, December 6, 2016, DOI: 10.1787/9789264266490-en, link: www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/pisa-2015-results-volume-i_9789264266490-en

• U.S. National Center for Education Statistics website, a comprehensive gateway to PISA publications with extracted documents for the USA, link: nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa

• University of Oslo, Faculty of Educational Sciences, Department of Teacher Education and School Research, gateway to Norwegian PISA, including downloadable report, link: www.uv.uio.no/ils/forskning/prosjekt-sider/pisa (in Norwegian only)

Further reading:
“Norway-USA in contrast: A brief look at two educational systems,” The Norwegian American, October 20, 2016, link: www.norwegianamerican.com/neighborhood/norway-usa-in-contrast-a-brief-look-at-two-education-systems

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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