PISA 2012 – results show a slight improvement for UK. How disappointing for Michael Gove.

Janet Downs's picture

65 countries and jurisdictions (part countries) took part including all 34 OECD countries in the tri-ennial Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests in 2011.

Results and rankings* for the UK are below:

MATHS (the primary focus of the 2012 tests)

Now 26th, up two places from 28th in 2009.  Score went up  from 492 to 494.  UK pupils perform at the OECD average in maths.  USA and Sweden, two countries which Gove uses to justify his reforms, now perform below the OECD average in maths.


Now 22nd, up three places from 25th in 2009.  Score rose from 494 to 499.  This is at the OECD average for reading.  The US also scores at the OECD average but Sweden scored below.


Now 20th, down three places from 17th in 2009.  Score, however, stayed the same: 514.  This is above the OECD average for science.  The US is at the average but Sweden scored below.

The OECD published each country's share of low and top performers in Maths.  UK had 21.8% of low-performing pupils (ie those below OECD Level 2**).  This is the OECD average.  The US and Sweden had a greater proportion of low performers and were below the average.

11.8% of UK 15 year-olds were top performers in maths.  This is at the OECD average.  Only 8.8% of US pupils and 8% of Sweden’s 15-year-olds were top performers - this was below the OECD average.

But what of the other countries? 

The table (sorted by maths results) is dominated by Pacific Rim countries: four Chinese jurisdictions, Shanghai (1), Hong Kong (3), Chinese Taipei (4) and Macao (6), and Singapore (2), Korea (5) and Japan (7).  Top European countries are Liechtenstein (8), Switzerland (9), Netherland (10), Estonia (11), Finland (12) and Poland (14).  Canada is ranked at 13, newcomer Viet Nam is at position 17.

There are 39 countries which scored below UK in the maths test.

I’ve made no attempt to analyse the results.  This information is based on the table only (page 5 of PISA 2012 Results in Focus).

There have been the usual negative reactions.  The BBC says UK “stagnates”.  But the results showed a slight improvement. 

Gove repeated his negative spin of yesterday:  he told the BBC the ‘UK's lack of progress was evidence that Labour's spending on schools had failed to deliver improvements and that England's education system had "stagnated" and fallen behind other countries.’

But the results showed a slight improvement.

Tristram Hunt, shadow Education Secretary, waded in.  He told the BBC the Pisa results were a "big wake-up call" and evidence of a failure to meet the "international challenge".

But the results showed a slight improvement.

So, beware of politicians spouting platitudes.  Instead, read Peter Wilby’s advice in the Guardian: “Don’t let dubious PISA league tables dictate how we educate our children” (even though he said UK had done “badly”).

The results showed a slight improvement.

UPDATE 14.34

Countries/economies whose mean score in maths is not statistically different from the UK are:

Ireland, Denmark, New Zealand, Czech Republic, France, Iceland, Latvia, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal (see table of Page 7 of PISA 2012 Results in Focus)


*The way the countries/jurisdictions have been ranked has changed.  The 2009 results were ranked according to whether a country’s score was “significantly above”, “not statistically significantly different from” or “significantly below” the OECD average.

The 2012 results, however, are ranked according to:

1         Countries/economies with a mean performance/share of top performers above the OECD average.  Countries/economies with a share of low achievers below the OECD average.

2         Countries/economies with a mean performance/share of low achievers/share of top performers not statistically significantly different from the OECD average/

3         Countries/economies with a mean performance/share of top performers below the OECD average.  Countries/economies with a share of low achievers above the OECD average.

Whether this makes comparison between 2009 and 2012 possible or not, I don’t know.

The UK was in the second group for maths and reading, but in the top group for science.

**Not to be confused with Office for National Statistics Level Two.  The OECD defines their Level Two as the "baseline" score required to function in today’s society.   The ONS calls this threshold Level One.  ONS Level Two is higher than the threshold for functional literacy/numeracy.

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