Are today’s students prepared for the knowledge economy of the 21st century?

The OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems in some 70 countries that, together, make up 90% of the world economy. By testing between 4 500 and 10 000 15-year-old students in each country, OECD PISA provides an internationally standardised assessment and has become a powerful tool for countries wanting to improve their education systems. Four assessments have been carried out since 2000.

PISA – who made the grade?

Students in the Chinese city of Shanghai have topped the rankings in the latest round of the OECD’s PISA international student assessments. The Shanghai students took first place in all three assessment topics – reading, mathematics and science.

The results from PISA 2009 are being announced by the OECD this morning (Tuesday 7 December). Since its first round in 2000, PISA has become perhaps the leading assessment of how well second-level students are doing. The fourth and most recent round of PISA involved 470,000 students in 65 countries and economies – the largest participation yet.

What does PISA do? Essentially, it aims to assess the learning skills of students aged around 15, which marks the end of compulsory education in many countries. Students are assessed for their competence in reading, maths and science, but not in ways that necessarily mirror traditional school tests. For one thing, they’re not tested against a national or school curriculum. For another, they are assessed for their ability to use things like reading and maths skills in ways that will help them throughout their life and career, not just for their ability to pass school exams.  

Given the amount of focus on the need for education reform in China, the strong showing by Shanghai in the latest round of PISA is striking. But it’s important to be clear that the results represent only students in that city, not in China as a whole. By Chinese standards, Shanghai is a developed city and, in terms of China’s education reforms, its schools are well ahead of the curve. By national standards, they’re also extremely well-funded – “… per student expenditure on junior middle schools is eighteen times higher in Beijing and Shanghai than in the poorest provinces”, Unesco reported earlier this year. Shanghai is also in the heart of a region that does well in PISA: In reading proficiency, 7 of the top 16 highest-ranking countries and economies are in East Asia; in mathematics proficiency the region’s performance is even stronger – 7 of the top 11.  

No doubt many of the headlines about PISA over the next few days will focus on countries’ relative positions. That sort of coverage is inevitable, but it’s not necessarily very useful. Viewing PISA solely as an international league table obscures the huge amount of data that sits below the headline figures. A few examples:

 How countries’ performances have evolved since 2000.

  • The impact of social background on how well students do.
  • How girls do compared to boys; and
  • The proportion of students who do well

Over the next few days here on the blog we’ll be looking at some of these issues in greater detail and helping you to explore results from PISA 2009.

A press conference  announcing the results of PISA 2009 begins on Tuesday 7 December, at 10am GMT/UTC (that’s 5am in New York, 11am in Paris, 7pm in Tokyo), and is being streamed live on the OECD website.

 Useful links

 OECD PISA – the Programme for International Student Assessment

 OECD educationtoday blog   – Spotlight on PISA 

OECD work on education

OECD Insights: Human Capital

PISA … the results are (almost) in

Wish you'd done your homework?

Expect to see education in the news over the next couple of days. That’s because the OECD is about to release the results from the latest round of its international PISA programme of student assessment. In total, about 470,000 students took part in PISA 2009 in 65 places around the world – from Australia to Uruguay.

When the results are released on Tuesday, much of the coverage will focus on the country rankings – who’s No. 1 and how well did each country do. But perhaps of greater interest is what PISA has to say about why students do – or don’t do – well. Dig past the headlines and there’s a mine of information about the impact of factors like students’ social background and their motivation to learn.

A press conference  announcing the results of PISA 2009 will begin on Tuesday 7 December, at 10am GMT/UTC (that’s 5am in New York, 11am in Paris, 7pm in Tokyo), and will be streamed live on the OECD website.

Useful links

OECD work on education

educationtoday blog

OECD work on jobs and skills

OECD Insights: Human Capital

Spend less, stay healthy

Fans of TV medical shows know the procedure: In a chaotic emergency room, Dr. McDreamy examines a feverish patient, furrows his brow, shouts out a diagnosis and – before you know it – a dozen or so suspiciously attractive doctors and nurses are running around, subjecting the poor patient to a bamboozling array of medical tests and scans. All very impressive.

But, in the real world, it’s also all rather expensive – and getting more so by the year. In OECD countries, for instance, the amount governments spend per person on healthcare has risen by more than 70% in real terms since the early 1990s. That spending has brought big benefits, not the least of which is that people are living longer: Over the past two decades, life expectancy – a widely used indicator for national health levels – has been rising by about a year every four years.

Increased healthcare spending isn’t the only reason for that – factors like diet and poverty also play a big role in determining life expectancy. For example, Japan spends less than the OECD average on healthcare and has just 2.2 practising physicians for every 1,000 people – well below the OECD average of 3.2 per 1,000. Nevertheless, it has the highest life expectancy in the OECD area – just under 83 years – and very low rates of infant mortality, due in part to the fact that it’s a wealthy country with a relatively healthy diet.

Still, the increased spending on healthcare since the 1990s has undoubtedly helped to improve health standards in OECD countries. But there’s a downside: spending probably can’t go on rising at its current rate. In 1995, it accounted for $12 out of every $100 spent by OECD governments. Twelve years later, that had risen to $15 out of every $100. In the wake of the financial crisis, when many governments are tightening their budgets, health spending may well come under the scalpel.

But that might hurt less than you’d expect. Why? Simply because governments don’t always get great value for money in healthcare – many could spend less and still get the same results. A report released by the OECD this week suggests that efficiencies could lead to substantial savings in health spending: Without reducing health outcomes, Ireland could make savings on healthcare equivalent to almost 5% of GDP by 2017, the OECD calculates, with Greece and the United Kingdom not far behind on almost 4%.

But even if countries don’t reduce spending, they could still gain substantial health benefits from spending more efficiently, says the OECD. For example, if all countries equalled the performance of the most efficient spenders, life expectancy at birth could be increased by another two years across the OECD area.

Staying with health, the OECD has also been looking recently at sickness and disability benefits, which is another major budget area for governments – it accounts for about 10% of public social spending in OECD countries. Before the recession struck, more people in OECD countries were receiving disability benefits than unemployment benefits – just over 30 million compared with just under 28 million.

A disproportionate number of people with disabilities in OECD countries live in poverty – around 22% compared with about 14% of non-disabled people. Helping them to go out to work could lower that number, but in many cases there are real obstacles to doing that: people with disabilities may have relatively lower levels of education and may face prejudice when applying for jobs. The OECD report suggests addressing these barriers by a partial shift from “passive” to  “active” spending. That means that, instead of simply making payments to people with disabilities, more should be spent on things like providing them with training and offering subsidies to employers to hire  them.

Useful links

Health Care Systems: Efficiency and Policy Settings at OECD iLibrary

Find out more and briefing note on this report

Sickness, Disability and Work: Breaking the Barriers at OECD iLibrary

OECD work on health

Data and statistics on health from the OECD

OECD work on sickness and disability