The Special Source of PISA Maths Success

The vital ingredient begins with a ‘T’.
Dec 11, 2023
The eighth PISA and the first post pandemic contained few surprises.

The countries that performed the best in PISA’s study of maths attainment were predictable, again Singapore and five other East Asian education systems, Macao (China), Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong (China), Japan and Korea, outperformed everyone else.

These same countries and economies were the next highest performers in science, along with Estonia and Canada.

A further ten countries and economies saw both a large share of all 15-year-olds gain at least basic proficiency in maths, reading and science, and high levels of socio-economic fairness in terms of outcomes: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Ireland, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Macao (China) and the United Kingdom. While socioeconomic status remains a significant predictor of performance, education in these countries and economies can be considered more equitable than others.

The countries are very diverse culturally and ethnically but there is one thimg that all of these high performing maths countries shared, PISA found that the availability of teachers to help students in need had the strongest relationship to maths performance across the OECD.

Maths scores were 15 points higher on average in places where students agreed they had good access to teachers’ support. These students were also more confident than their peers to learn autonomously and remotely.

Despite this, only one in five students overall reported having received extra help from teachers in some lessons in 2022. Around eight percent never or almost never received additional support.

The survey also reveals the fast-changing impact of technology on children’s educational performance. PISA shows that moderate use of digital devices in school is associated with higher performance, but this depends on the technology being used to support rather than distract from learning.

On average across OECD countries, students who spent up to one hour a day on digital devices for leisure scored 49 points higher in maths than students who spent between five and seven hours per day, after taking into account students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile.

45% of students reported feeling nervous or anxious if their phones were not near them, on average across OECD countries, and 65% reported being distracted by using digital devices in at least some maths lessons. The proportion topped 80% in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Finland, Latvia, Mongolia, New Zealand and Uruguay.

Students who reported being distracted by other students using digital devices in some, most or every maths class scored 15 points lower in PISA maths tests than those who barely experienced this. This represents the equivalent of three-quarters of a year’s worth of education, even after accounting for students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile.

The eighth round of the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment tested nearly 700,000 15-year-old students in 81 OECD Member countries and partner economies on mathematics, reading and science. This edition, with a focus on maths, was also the first to collect data on student performance, well-being and equity before and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overall, on average, the PISA 2022 assessment saw an unprecedented drop in performance across the OECD. Compared to 2018, mean performance fell by 10 score points in reading and by almost 15 score points in maths.

The sharp decline in maths performance is three times greater than any previous consecutive change, and particularly significant in countries such as Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland, which all saw a drop of 25 score points or more in maths between 2018 and 2022.

The decline in performance can only partially be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, with falling scores in reading science and maths already apparent prior to 2018.

On the upside, many countries, including Cambodia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Morocco, Paraguay and Romania, have rapidly expanded access to education over the past decade, making significant progress towards universal secondary education.
Image by monstera production.