On 3 December 2019, the OECD published the 2018 PISA scores for 79 countries.
In Switzerland, around 6,000 school pupils born in 2002 from more than 200 school across Switzerland took the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test.
PISA, run every three years, assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students, near the end of their compulsory education, have acquired key knowledge and skills. The assessment focuses on the core school subjects of science, reading and mathematics.
The results highlight some of the challenges facing society. Only 10% of the 15-year-olds tested across the world were able to distinguish between fact and opinion based on implicit cues in reading exercises. This is worrying in a polarised world of social media fuelled opinion.
At the top in the latest 2018 assessment were China and Singapore. China was first in all three subjects and Singapore was second across all three. Switzerland was ranked 28th in reading, 22nd in science and 11th in mathematics.
Swiss scores were close to OECD averages for reading (484) and science (495). Only in mathematics (515) was Switzerland meaningfully ahead. The OECD averages were 487 for reading, 489 for science and 489 for mathematics.
With a score below the OECD average, reading was Switzerland’s area of relative weakness. The percentage of 15-year-olds in Switzerland achieving a score of Level 2 in reading (76.2%) trailed France (79.1%), Germany (79.3%), the US (80.7%) and the UK (82.7%). The PISA reading assessment tests an individual’s capacity to understand, use, reflect on and engage with written text.
Swiss children intensively learn three languages at school. Perhaps this has an impact on learning to read well.
In Science Switzerland (71.0%) was behind its close neighbours France (72.6%) and Germany (79.9%) but slightly ahead of the US (70.0%), the UK (70.0%) and the EU average (69.3%).
In mathematics, Switzerland’s area of strength, the percentage of 15-year-olds in Switzerland achieving a score of Level 2 in mathematics (83.2%) was ahead of France (78.7%), Germany (78.9%), the US (72.9%) and the UK (80.8%). It was also above the EU average (76.0%).
Unfortunately, Switzerland’s scores in all subjects are on downward trend, dropping twice since 2012. Between 2012 and 2018, scores in all subjects dropped by more than 3%.
Switzerland spends plenty of money on education. Only Luxembourg spends more. However, it gets a poor return on its investment. Spend per pupil between the ages of 6 and 15 in Switzerland is more than US$ 170,000. New Zealand manages to outperform Switzerland in science while spending less than half this sum.
PISA scores help to expose a number of myths. For example, educational quality is not about class size. The highest scoring education systems focus on hiring good teachers rather than aiming for small classes.
Another myth-busting finding is that streaming is not a strong determinant of educational performance. The highest performing school systems tend not to stream.
Finally, the study finds that deprivation does not need to be destiny. In 2012, the 10% most disadvantaged students in Shanghai achieved similar maths scores to those of the 10% most privileged American students.
2018 PISA scores for each country in the three core subjects can be viewed here.