Irish teenagers ‘are second best in the world at reading’

Our 15-year-olds perform above average in maths and science, but Ireland has fewer high-achieving students in those subjects, according to tests run by OECD

Teenagers in Ireland are among the best in the world at reading, according to tests taken by 15-year-olds in 81 countries and regions.

The Pisa tests, run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years, also show Irish teens perform significantly better than average in maths and science.

Overall, 15-year-olds in Ireland score highest for reading (second, up from eighth in 2018) and above average for maths (11th, up from 21st) and science (12th, up from 22nd).

In reading only Singapore ranked higher than Ireland, followed by Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Estonia.


However, the performance of students at maths slipped significantly in Ireland since the last study in 2018. Science improved and reading remained broadly the same.

The fact that many other EU and OECD countries saw declines across these areas resulted in Ireland climbing up the rankings.

The Pisa tests, which were delayed from 2021 due to the pandemic, were carried out by 600,000 15-year-olds across jurisdictions which included 37 developed OECD countries and 26 EU member states. In Ireland, more than 5,500 students in 170 schools participated in the Pisa tests.

Ireland’s broadly positive performance comes despite challenges such as disruption caused by Covid-19 and will also likely be seen as a vote of confidence in highly contested Junior Cycle reforms.

A note of caution, however, has been sounded by statisticians who say the sample number of students in Ireland who completed standardised tests in October and November last year was under the minimum threshold.

This likely led to more higher achievers sitting tests in Ireland compared to previous years which, in turn, may have slightly inflated our results.

One source of concern is that Ireland has significantly fewer high-achieving students in maths and science compared to other developed countries.

This trend has been notable since 2012 and raises questions over whether our most talented students are being challenged enough.

On a positive note, Ireland has a smaller proportion of low-achieving pupils compared to most other countries.

This, say researchers, is likely to be the result of a focus on tackling literacy and numeracy in recent years, as well as investment in disadvantaged or Deis schools.

The variation in performance between schools in Ireland is also lower than many other countries – a sign Irish secondary schools are more equitable compared to other developed countries.

When broken down by gender, the results show girls in Ireland significantly outperform boys in reading. However, boys outperform girls in maths, while there is no sign of a gender gap in science.

Minister for Education Norma Foley welcomed the findings as “extremely positive news for Ireland”.

“We have retained our place among a small set of high achieving countries at a time where particular strain was put on school communities globally due to Covid-19. We have also ensured that the number of low achieving students remains among the lowest in the 81 countries tested,” she said.

Ms Foley added that although the pandemic presented unprecedented challenges, the resilience shown by schools during that time was to be commended.

The global findings show students in east Asian countries such as Singapore, China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong dominate the rankings and outperform most other countries in reading, maths and science.

In maths, Singapore was top, followed by Japan, China and Taiwan, while in science Singapore was also top, followed by Japan, China and Taiwan.

A breakdown of the scores shows these countries have significantly more high achievers than in Ireland.

Department of Education officials say there is scope to make progress on this in Ireland through developments in curriculum, teaching and policy. It has established a working group to develop a policy on students who are exceptionally able or gifted.

On the positive side, officials believe that fact we have fewer low achievers than average is a sign of the success of a range of initiatives such as the Deis system of supports for school in more deprived areas, as well as literacy and numeracy strategies.

The decline in maths performance among Irish students will also raise eyebrows, even if Ireland climbed up the rankings due to poorer scores for students in comparator countries. Officials say policymakers can learn from these results and put measures in place to help to further develop our students’ critical thinking, for example.

The increase in science score for Irish students comes as on the back of changes to the Junior Cycle science curriculum that have proved controversial among some teachers. Officials, however, believe we are seeing the effects of the changes in the system and will continue to see this develop over time.

Try a Pisa question:

This is an example of the kind of problem-solving and critical thinking skills that Pisa aims to measure among 15-year-olds. on a global scale. Can you solve it?

Unlike traditional assessments, Pisa seeks to assess not just students’ ability to reproduce learned material but also their capacity to apply knowledge creatively in unexpected scenarios, think critically across disciplines and demonstrate effective learning strategies.

While some critics argue that Pisa tests are unfair as they present students with unfamiliar problems, the OECD argues that life is full of unforeseen challenges. In the real world, it says, people must solve problems that they have not anticipated; it is not just about remembering lessons in a classroom.

Note: the answer to the triangular pattern question is 40.0%.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent