Every three years, about 600,000 15-year-old-students across the globe undertake a series of standardised tests aimed at measuring their ability to think.
There are no memory tests; instead, they are expected to solve problems they haven’t seen before, identify patterns that are not obvious and make compelling written arguments across reading, maths and science.
So, the results of the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) rankings, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), can be a nerve-jangling moment for those in charge of our schools.
Any slide in the rankings will inevitably spur hand-wringing, navel-gazing and sweeping calls for change.
The sense of jeopardy in Ireland’s case felt higher still this year given our longer-than-average school closures during the pandemic, as well as controversial curriculum reform at Junior Cycle.
It turns out we needn’t have worried at all – there is lots of good news in this year’s results.
The findings, released at 10am on Tuesday, show Irish students are among the best performers in reading among the 81 countries and territories tested. In addition, they are significantly above average in maths and science.
Not only that, but Ireland vaulted up the leader board. Our highest score was in reading (second, up from eighth in 2018) followed by maths (11th, up from 21st) and science (12th, up from 22nd).
(A note of caution has been sounded by statisticians who say Ireland’s results may have been slightly inflated due to a smaller-than-planned sample number of students sitting the test in Ireland. This likely led to a higher proportion of stronger students compared to previous years.)
Nonetheless, a key to Ireland’s success has been its stable performance relative to most other OECD countries who saw declines – and, in some cases, dramatic drops – across their reading, maths and science scores.
More than half of countries saw unprecedented declines in maths. Typically high performing countries such as Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland recorded especially steep drops in performance.
Covid seem an obvious factor, although education trajectories were negative in many of these countries long before the pandemic.
Ireland, it seems, weathered the pandemic better than most. There is no single answer as to why we have been more resilient. It seems likely that there are multiple factors at play.
For example, those most at risk of learning loss during this period were low performers and disadvantaged pupils. Ireland, in relative terms, has fewer students with low proficiency and smaller numbers of disadvantaged learners compared to most other countries. The variation in performance between schools in Ireland is also lower than many other countries – a sign that Irish secondary schools are more equitable compared to most other developed countries.
Junior Cycle reforms may also be yielding dividends. Teens who sat the Pisa tests, for example, were among the first to have completed the new science curriculum, which has a greater focus on developing students’ ability to gather and evaluate evidence. The results for Ireland show a significant improvement in science performance – an encouraging sign for other areas of curricular reform, despite concerns about subjects being “dumbed down”.
Parental interest and involvement may be another factor. In fact, Ireland has the highest percentage of all countries surveyed whose students reported that their parents or someone in their family asked them what they did in school that day. OECD research shows the level of active support parents offer can have a decisive impact.
Dig a little deeper though and all is not well. The biggest blot on the landscape in Ireland is undoubtedly the low proportion of top-performing students in Ireland across reading, maths and science.
In maths, for example, East Asian countries such as Singapore, China, Taiwan and Korea are streaking ahead with far higher proportions of top achievers. Incredibly, students in Singapore are estimated to be about three to five years ahead of the OECD average in maths and science.
Clearly, we have students capable of achieving at the highest levels. It seems likely that our focus on supporting the engagement of less-able students has come at the cost of these top students.
We’ve known this for some time. It is, of course, a tricky balancing act to meet the needs of students of mixed ability in the classroom. However, the case for supporting top students in a more structured way is compelling if the education system is serious about fulfilling the potential of all learners.
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