The release of the OECD's Pisa rankings every three years is a revealing moment for twitchy politicians and policy-makers.
It’s a two-hour test undertaken by 600,000 students worldwide which is designed to measure a person’s ability to think.
It does not measure what students have memorised. Instead, it asks them to solve problems they haven’t seen before, to identify patterns that are not obvious and to make compelling written arguments.
In Ireland’s case, there is sharp relief today: the results show our 15-year-olds are among the best in the world at reading and significantly above average for maths and science.
In reading literacy, we rank inside the top 10 (8th out of 77 participating jurisdictions).
Teenagers in Ireland also rank above average for maths (21st) and science (22nd) compared to other developed countries.
One striking aspect of the Irish performance is the small proportion of low-achieving pupils compared to other countries.
This, say analysts, is likely to be result of a big focus on tackling literacy and numeracy, as well as investment in disadvantaged schools.
(Much of this, incidentally, was sparked by alarm bells following Pisa rankings in 2009, which showed a sharp decline in the performance of Irish teenagers.)
The variation in performance between schools in Ireland is also lower than many other countries.
This is a sign that Irish secondary schools are relatively equitable compared to other developed countries.
So far, so good.
But there are some worrying signs.
The Pisa findings show Ireland has below-average numbers of high-achieving students in science and maths, for example.
This slow and incremental decline has been notable since 2012 and suggests that our strongest students are not being “stretched” enough.
It also appears to reinforce a trend where students in Ireland often struggle with “higher order” skills.
Minister for Education Joe McHugh has suggested that the introduction of the Junior Cycle – with its emphasis on the application of skills and critical thinking – will help with this.
Many teachers who are sceptical of Junior Cycle reforms which, they say, are “dumbing down” the system, may baulk at this. Time will tell if he is right.
All in all, it is a steady performance by 15-year-olds in Ireland.
Rise of China
If the Irish performance is encouraging, it is eclipsed by the inclusion this year of students in a number of Chinese provinces.
The extent to which these provinces are outperforming the rest of the world is breath-taking.
Pisa figures show 15-year-olds in the four provinces of China that participated in the study – Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang – outperformed by a large margin their peers from all of the other 78 participating education systems in maths and science.
In fact, the most disadvantaged 10 per cent of students in these four jurisdictions show better reading skills than those of the average student in OECD countries.
Not only that, but these same disadvantaged students show skills similar to the 10 per cent of most advantaged students in some OECD countries.
Analysts point out that these four provinces in eastern China are far from representing China as a whole,
However, it is worth noting that the size of each of them compares to that of a typical OECD country, and their combined populations amount to over 180 million.
As the authors of the Pisa study note, what makes their achievement even more remarkable is that the level of income of these four Chinese regions is well below the OECD average.
The quality of their schools today will influence the strength of their economies tomorrow.
Back in Ireland, there is much to ponder on how to try to catch up with Chinese provinces and other high-performing jurisdictions.
In addition to curriculum changes which may help stretch our top students, there is another key area that remains to be properly developed: technology.
Despite notions that Ireland is the Silicon Valley of Europe, Pisa results show students in Ireland are less likely than pupils in other developed countries to use digital devices for classwork in school or at home.
Principals’ views on the capacity of their schools to enhance teaching and learning through technology are also less favourable than in other developed countries.
Many feel that while they have access to devices and broadband, they feel they lack sufficient access to technical support or assistance.
Interestingly, the Pisa tests are completed on computer – and less than half of Irish students reported that they had ever completed a test on a device before.
By contrast, the top-performing country in Europe – Estonia – has ploughed massive resources into harnessing the power of digital technology and developing an e-curriculum.