East Asia has strengthened its grip on the top places of the world’s most influential international education rankings, it was revealed today.
Countries or states from the region occupy all the top seven positions for maths, the main focus of the latest edition of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which compares the performance of 15-year-olds across the world.
But there was bad news for Finland, a perennial star in previous Pisa studies, which suffered declines in maths, science and reading; as did Sweden, another Nordic country with a schools system that the others have sought to emulate.
And there were mixed fortunes for the rest of Europe, with the UK, which failed to improve significantly from the last Pisa in 2009, overtaken by Ireland.
But Poland continued its rise and Italy’s performance suggested it could be possible to improve education outcomes in the face of spending cuts.
East Asia’s dominance stretched beyond maths to reading, where it takes the top five places of the Pisa 2012 rankings, and science, where it takes the top four.
Shanghai, China, was the highest-placed education system by a considerable distance across all three subject areas.
Presenting a graphic of the results yesterday, Andreas Schleicher, deputy education director of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which runs Pisa, said that the city’s score in maths was now so far ahead “that it no longer fits on the scale”.
The difference between Shanghai’s maths score and the OECD average is now “the equivalent of nearly three years of schooling”, according to the study.
Mr Schleicher added: “Every second student in Shanghai has these kinds of very creative, advanced mathematical thinking skills that you just find in about one in ten students in the rest of the industrialised world.”
The Chinese city also has less than 4 per cent of its 15-year-olds unable to complete “the most obvious tasks” in maths, compared to 22 per cent in the UK and more than 75 per cent in Indonesia.
But Indonesia can console itself by having the highest proportion of students who report being happy at school out of all 65 territories.
In the maths table, Shanghai is followed by Singapore; Hong Kong; Taiwan; South Korea; Macao, China and Japan.
“You find lots of these East Asian systems doing very well,” Mr Schleicher said. “Asia is really, really strong.”
Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan came second, third and fourth respectively in science, and in reading – where South Korea came fifth.
Education policy-makers from around the world have beaten a path to Finland in the wake of its top-of-the-table finishes in the first three Pisa studies in 2000, 2003 and 2006.
This year it still finished fifth in science and sixth in reading, but that was down from the second and third places, respectively, that it managed in 2009. In maths, it slumped from sixth to 12th place and the country saw significant drops in its point scores in all three areas.
But Finland is praised in Pisa, along with Estonia, for low variations between student scores and “proving that high performance is possible for all”.
Sweden, the inspiration for England’s free schools programme, also saw its scores dip in all three areas and slipped from 26th to 38th in maths, 29th to 38th in science and 19th to 36th in reading.
John Bangs, chair of the OECD trade union advisory committee’s education working group, said: “My belief is that Finland and Sweden are suffering from the strains of declining economies and the social pressures this causes.
“In Sweden’s case, this is compounded by a disastrous experiment with the private sector and free schools. Michael Gove [England’s education secretary] can no longer turn a blind eye to that.”
But Pisa – which claims to provide “the most comprehensive picture” of maths skills “ever” – notes that differences within countries “represent only a fraction of the overall variation in student performance”.
The difference in maths performances within them is “generally even greater”, with “the equivalent of more than seven years of schooling often separating the highest and the lowest performers in a country”.
“Addressing the education needs of such diverse populations and narrowing the observed gaps in student performance remains a formidable challenge for all countries,” the study concludes.
Read the rest of the TES' Pisa coverage at our dedicated Pisa 2012 page.