Program for International Student Assessment 2015 Test Results and What They Mean

Written By: Josh Speer

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international survey taken every three years to evaluate education systems across the world by testing the knowledge and skills of 15-year olds, released the results from 2015 on December 6th, 2016. 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 on science, but also included mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving, and financial literacy.

What are the results? 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.

Japan, Estonia, Finland, and Canada are the four highest-performing OECD countries. Just 8% of students across OECD countries are top performers in science. A shining exception, Singapore, turned out to be number one in science education, with 24% of their students proven to be considered “top performers”. 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 level 6 is a score above 669. For the latter, they have 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. Read more about the different levels here.

For the majority of countries who participated, science performance remains unchanged since 2006, despite all the advances in science and technology during this period. Performance in science improved between 2006 and 2015 in Qatar, Macao (China), Colombia, Israel, Portugal, and Romania. Macao, Portugal, and Qatar’s students who performed at above Level 5 increased, and the amount of students performing at level 2– “below the baseline of proficiency” –decreased.

Students at level 2 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, Beijing‑Shanghai‑Jiangsu‑Guangdong are top‑performing students in mathematics.  This means that they can handle tasks that require the ability to formulate complex situations mathematically, using symbolic representations. Andreas Schleicher, Director for the Directorate of Education and Skills, addresses in a YouTube video, 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 Massachusetts (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 latter is nearly 100 points below the national average.

The 2015 PISA results show that, though there has been advances in science and technology, science and math education hasn’t necessarily kept up in most participating countries. There are a handful of countries who have shown significant improvement in their education, but there is much improvement to be made.

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