Hong Kong students are ahead of most 15-year-olds in 43 countries in maths and science and almost as good as the best in reading proficiency. They are the latest stars in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) firmament.
The latest findings from Pisa, published this week, show that Finland comes out top again. But students in Peru, Brazil and Chile lag seriously behind in all three areas, even after taking account of lower national income levels.
The report measures how well young people are prepared to meet the challenges of the "knowledge societies". Between 4,500 and 10,000 pupils in each country were tested for reading, maths and scientific literacy.
The study compares and analyses data collected in 2002 from 15 non-OECD countries with data collected two years earlier from 28 of the 30 member countries of the OECD and first published in 2001.
The findings of the earlier report shocked the UK and Germany. The UK did better than expected, coming seventh in reading, eighth in maths and fourth in science. Germany did far worse at 25th, 22th and 23th respectively. This relatively poor performance prompted much heart-searching and policy changes.
The latest report also shows that 80 per cent of students in Peru and just over half in Albania, Indonesia and Macedonia could complete only the simplest reading tasks. Within countries, the performance gap in reading skills between students from rich and poor families was greatest in Argentina, the US, Chile, Israel, Portugal, Mexico, Peru and Brazil.
Asian and Scandinavian children from underprivileged backgrounds are more likely to achieve better results than their counterparts in Eastern Europe, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg or Belgium.
Higher state spending per pupil tends to be linked with higher performance but does not guarantee it, says the report, published jointly by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco).
Italy spends about twice as much as Korea, but whereas Korea is among the best performing countries in all the subjects assessed, Italy is significantly below the OECD average.
Girls do better than boys in reading in all the countries, while boys scored higher than girls in maths, except in Albania. There are fewer differences between the genders in science.
Boys' poor reading performance is closely tied to a lack of interest in books. Some 58 per cent of boys compared to a third of girls said they read only to get the information they needed.
Forty-five per cent of girls, but only 30 per cent of boys, reported spending at least 30 minutes a day reading for pleasure.
Literacy skills for the world of tomorrow: further results from Pisa 2000 www.uis.unesco.orgwww.pisa.oecd.org
COUNTRIES TAKING PART
The 15 countries in the new Pisa study:
Albania, Argentina, Brazil,Bulgaria, Chile,Hong Kong-China, Indonesia, Israel, Latvia, Liechtenstein, FYR Macedonia, Peru, Romania, the Russian Federation and Thailand.
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries in Pisa 2000:
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal,Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.