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Editorial - Dig down into the data and Pisa looks promising

So, not a lot has changed in terms of S4 students' performance in maths, science and reading in Scotland over the past three years. At least that's the verdict from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2012, which tested 2,945 Scottish 15-year-olds from 111 secondaries and compared their results to those of their peers around the world (see pages 6-7).

But holding position is not to be sniffed at when in the recent past we have seen Scotland's performance slide in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey. Today, the country is above the OECD average for science and reading and around the average for maths. In the latter - the main focus for the results published this week - Scotland has overtaken the likes of Sweden, with New Zealand and Australia dropping down to join us.

Although Scotland doesn't have its own entry in the overall table, the government in Holyrood uses the data to model where we find ourselves. The UK as a whole was rated 26th for maths, 23rd for reading and 21st for science. Countries and regions that consistently feature at the top of the tables include Shanghai, Singapore, Estonia and Finland.

However, the most important comparison is the one carried out by education secretary Michael Russell's team. Scotland leads the field in reading and maths, and lags behind England by just three points in science. The gap is largest in reading, with Scotland six points ahead of England and classed as significantly above the OECD average, while England is average.

The Scottish government's preferred boast, however, is that Scotland is the only UK country where the attainment gap between the least and most deprived students narrowed between 2009 and 2012, although the impact of disadvantage remains lower in Wales.

Such findings were "not trivial", the head of the OECD division that runs Pisa told TESS. Michael Davidson said that there had been "real improvement" and that something was "going right".

Still, in Scotland a more advantaged student scores 37 points higher in maths on average than a less advantaged student - the equivalent to nearly one year of schooling.

Minister for learning Alasdair Allan has identified Poland as a country to watch. Its scores were similar to Scotland's in 2009 but above Scotland across the board in 2012. As well as increasing its share of top-performing students, Poland has also cut its share of low performers.

Almost six years' worth of schooling separates the best and worst countries in maths in Pisa. However, the difference in maths performance within nations is even greater, with the equivalent of more than seven years of schooling often separating the highest- and the lowest-achieving students.

Mr Russell recently described Scotland's persistent attainment gap as "the most stubborn and elusive problem of all" but clearly the question of how you enable all students to excel is not just a Scottish problem, it's a global one.

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