PISA international test scores show Australia, Canada, UK, USA lagging

'Before you say anything, remember the educational importance of self-esteem.'


The 2012 edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in, and once Asia leads the way, with China, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea and Japan scoring very well, while many first-world nations, such as Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., lag behind.


In Canada,  which placed 13th overall in mathematics, “alarm bells went off” as

[m]ath scores, the focus of 2012 PISA tests whose results have just been released, declined 14 points in nine years in Canada. And the country produced fewer students who were high achievers – 16 per cent were at Level 5 or above – than the top Asian countries, where over 30 per cent scored at that high achievement level.

Provincially, Quebec emerged as a Canadian leader in math, well above Canada’s average, coming in at #8 when provincial scores are put into the international table. Educators say the high scores are likely the result of teachers in the province having studied math during their training so they can teach the subject with more confidence.

(The italics are ours.) Canada also did fairly well in English and in science, while Ireland at #13 in maths was the best scoring English language society in science.

On the mathematics test, Shanghai students scored on average 613 points, which is 130 points (the equivalent of roughly two school grades) ahead of U.S.A. students, stunning observers in the U.S.A. and Europe, who were quick to emphasize that Shanghai is not typical of all China.

PISA is an international comparison of 15-year-old student performance, conducted by and published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It is widely considered one of the most reliable measures of scholastic achievement and educational effectiveness. Although only 34 nations are members of OECD, 65 nations and economies, including 510,000 individual students, participated in the 2012 PSA.

In mathematics, the top five nations/economies are, in order, Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Chinese Taipei and Korea. Canada, as mentioned above ranked 13; Australia ranked a good but not stellar 19; the U.K. was at a middling 26; U.S. was a disappointing 36. If one considers only OECD nations, then Korea and Japan rank 1 and 2, with Canada, 7, Australia 12, U.K. 19, and U.S. 27, which is still not very impressive. (See the report overview for details.)

In reading, the top five are Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Korea and Japan. Canada, Australia, U.K. and U.S. ranked 8, 14, 23 and 24, respectively. Within OECD nations, Canada, Australia, U.K. and U.S. rank 4, 8,  16 and 17. In science, the top five are Shanghai-China (again!), Hong Kong-China, Singapore, Japan and Finland. Here Canada, Australia, U.K. and U.S. rank 10, 17, 20 and 28. When restricting the count to OECD, they rank 7, 11, 13 and 21, respectively.

The report notes that while many nations, including Australia, U.K. and U.S.A., mostly maintained their mean score levels from the year before, their rankings slipped in some cases because other nations have significantly improved. Shanghai-China, Singapore, Poland, Portugal, Italy, Israel, and Romania were among the nations that significantly improved their scores from the year before. Shanghai-China was up 4.2 points from the year before.

Overall, the PISA results are in keeping with recent results in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), as we described in an earlier Math Drudge blog.

Indeed, the story is a familiar one — mediocre performance by leading first-world nations (certainly including Australia, U.K. and U.S.), while up-and-coming nations (e.g., China, Singapore, Korea, Finland, Poland and others) are surging ahead.

The response of major Western nations is predictable. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Ducnan, described the latest results as a “wake-up call.” Barack Obama invoked memories of Sputnik, saying “As it stands right now, … America is in danger of falling behind.”

U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove lamented that since the 1990s, test performances had been “at best stagnant, at worst declining.” Graham Stuart, chair of the education select committee, cited the results as evidence that “we went nowhere,” in spite of making heavy investment in schools.

Australian education officials were even more distressed. Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne noted that Australia’s results had declined despite a 44 per cent increase in education spending over the past decade. “These results are the worst for Australia since testing began and shows that we are falling behind our regional neighbors.”

MathLearningSo after all the gnashing of teeth, will anything change? Don’t hold your breath. Changing educational outcomes certainly demands better paid and better trained teachers as we have earlier discussed. But a rapidly changing and largely anti-intellectual cultural environment makes it very hard to fight the broader societal trends.

[Added 18 Dec 2013:] The PISA results have sparked additional discussion in the media, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. Here is an editorial comment from the New York Times: NYT editorial.

Comments are closed.