What Do the 2015 PISA Results Show About Science and Math Education Around the World?

The 2015 results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, an international survey taken every three years to evaluate education systems around the world by testing the knowledge and practical skills of 15-year olds, have arrived. Just over half a million students, representing 28 million total 15-year old students in 72 different countries and economies, took this two-hour exam. The focus in 2015 was specifically science education, but also included mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving, and financial literacy. The latest results were released on December 6th, 2016. Some countries made significant improvements since the last time (2006) the PISA focused on science. However, that is not the case with most participating countries.

What does the data say about the quality of education across the globe? According to the summary page, they assessed students performance in science, as well as their attitudes towards the subject. Why?

“An understanding of science, and of science‑based technology, is necessary not only for those whose careers depend on it directly, but also for any citizen who wishes to make informed decisions related to the many controversial issues under debate today.”

These issues include, but are not limited to, touchy topics such as diet, waste management, and genetically modified crops.

Just 8% of students in countries who participate in this Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) program are considered “top performers” in science. A shining exception, Singapore, turned out to be number one in science education; with 24% of their students considered “top performers”. The “key factor” was a high standard of teaching. The country recruits it’s teachers from the top 5% of graduates, seeing it as a prestigious position. The overall highest performing OECD member nations are Japan, Estonia, Finland, and Canada.

What does it take to be on the top? For science, it means they’re “sufficiently skilled in and knowledgeable about science to creatively and autonomously apply their knowledge and skills to a wide variety of situations, including unfamiliar ones.” In mathematics, it means they’re at least performing at levels 5 or 6. Level 5 is a score between 607 and 669, and means that students have to “work with models for complex situations”, as well as identifying constraints and specifying assumptions. Level 6 is a score above 669, where the students display a strong ability to “conceptualize, generalize, and utilize information” on the basis of their investigations and modeling of complex problems. The students have to apply insight and display mastery of formal mathematical operations and relations in order to develop innovative approaches and strategies in unique situations.

For the majority of countries who participated, the performance of science education remains unchanged since 2006, despite all the advances in science and technology during this period. Performance improved between 2006 and 2015 in Qatar, Macao (China), Colombia, Israel, Portugal, and Romania. The number of students Macao, Portugal, and Qatar who performed at above Level 5 increased, and the amount of students performing at level 2, below the “baseline of proficiency,” decreased. Students at this level are expected to understand basic science content, procedures to identify an appropriate explanation, interpret data, and identify the question being addressed in a single experiment. They are expected to be at this level before leaving high school.

More than one in four students in Hong Kong (China), Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Beijing‑Shanghai‑Jiangsu‑Guangdong are considered top‑performing students in mathematics. Meaning that they can handle tasks that require the ability to formulate complex situations mathematically, using symbolic representations. Andreas Schleicher, Director for the OECD Directorate of Education and Skills, addresses in a video that these Chinese provinces specifically have achieved their success by putting heavy emphasis on good teaching, as well as “high and universal expectations for every student.”

Despite the fact that between 2006 and 2015, no country nor economy improved their performance in science or equity in education simultaneously, the relationship between socioeconomic status and student performance weakened in nine countries where mean science scores remained stable. The United States showed some improvement in equity. However, not quality. The average scores of the PISA for U.S. students is 496 out of 1,000. Massachusetts (529), North Carolina (502), and Puerto Rico (403) participated separate from the rest of the country.

In mathematics, the U.S. sits at an average of 470—with Massachusettes (500), North Carolina (471), and Puerto Rico (378) testing separately on this subject as well. The former two have shown improvement and are sitting above the national average. However, the Puerto Rico is nearly 100 points below the national average.

The 2015 PISA results show that, despite advances in science and technology, the education for those fields hasn’t necessarily kept up in most participating countries. There are a handful of countries who have shown significant improvement in their education. They seem to show the same consistent themes of high expectations for teachers and students alike. However, around the world, there is still much improvement to be made in education to keep up with the rate of scientific and technological advances.

Joshua D. Speer

I'm an undergraduate student living in Denver, CO. I am currently working on my prerequisites at Front Range Community College--where I'm a staff writer for the Front Page (campus newspaper) and chapter president of Young Americans for Liberty (YAL). I intend to transfer into a four-year Bioengineering program, sub-specialty of Neuroengineering. Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @JoshuaDSpeer.

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