PISA 2015

In the world’s biggest education test, one small country has raced past all the others

Hitting the books.
Hitting the books.
Image: Reuters/Brian Snyder
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Every three years the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) tests 15-year-olds around the world on their math, science and reading abilities.

Then, countries around the world celebrate, or panic.

For example, in 2000, the world learned Finland was a global education superpower (that was news to many in Finland too, according to some). Somehow the country managed to start kids in school at 7, have short school days, assign little homework, test kids infrequently, and still eke out amazing results.

Finland’s schools became a top tourist attraction, as educators around the globe flocked to understand their secret (basically, stringent selection of teachers, who are given autonomy to teach).

But what goes up sometimes comes down. In the OECD’s latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranking (pdf), for 2015, Finland has fallen from its perch (though it remains a very high performer), and Singapore trounced the rest of the world on math, reading and science.

PISA 2015 includes data from 72 countries and economies, including all 35 OECD members and 37 other countries and economies. In some cases, regions stand in for countries: Taiwan’s results are based on testing in Taipei, in Argentina only the city of Buenos Aires participates, and in mainland China, four provinces—Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Guangdong (B-S-J-G) participate.

In addition, some countries paid to have subnational regions tested separately; the US, for instance, asked for rankings for Massachusetts and North Carolina. Approximately 540,000 students took the test, which aims to capture what students know toward the end of their formal schooling, and how well they can apply that knowledge more broadly.

Here’s a snapshot of the winners and losers. We present these with the obvious caveat that the sum of an education is not a score on a test; read here, for instance, about how teachers worldwide are focusing on other skills, like agency and empathy, to create a more rounded education.


Singapore takes the top dog award. Over the past three years, it has gained in every single area. And its scores utterly smoke every one else’s:

In addition to Singapore, Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, and Macao were the only places where at least four out of five 15-year-old students have mastered the OECD’s baseline level of proficiency in science, reading and mathematics.




The United States fared poorly, as usual: with a math score of 470, it performed well below the OECD average, and it is among the lowest-performing countries in the subject. Results in science declined from 2012, coming in at 496, slightly above the OECD average. In reading, it also performed slightly better than the OECD average (493) at 497.

The OECD examined the results of Massachusetts separately, and it fared well: in science, the small east-coast state scored 529, on par with some of the world’s top students in the subject, and far above both the OECD and US averages. Its kids scored well in reading too; and even in math—which is perpetually weak in the US—they scored, 500, above the OECD average of 490. Then again, that could be because there’s a strong correlation between wealth and education performance; Massachusetts has one of the US’s highest average incomes.


Despite the fact that spending per primary and secondary student rose by almost 20% across OECD countries between 2005 and 2013—the majority of countries with comparable data—science performance in PISA hasn’t budged much since 2006.

Of the 64 countries/economies with legitimate results from more than one PISA round, 31 show no significant change in average science performance; 15 countries improved significantly; and 18 worsened.

Countries that showed measurable gains in science include both high-fliers such as Singapore and Macao, and low performers, including Peru and Colombia.


Since 2000, four PISA tests have been administered, and the way the OECD measures reading scores has not changed much. This allows long-term comparisons over a period in which, the OECD wrote, “not just education systems, but societies and economies as a whole have changed considerably.” Consider: In 2000, only 26% of the population, on average across OECD countries, used the internet, compared to 80% in 2015, according to the report.

Examining data from 42 countries and economies, from 2000-2015, the OECD found that the following places have made steady gains in reading: Chile, Germany, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Macao, Poland, Portugal, Romania, and Russia. Chile, Israel, and Russia improved the most.

Twenty-four others saw no significant improvement or a worsening since 2000.

Trends are of course messy: in Russia and Macao improvement is accelerating; in Poland, it’s improving but at a slower pace than before; and in the US and Canada, there’s been no significant change.

Sometimes this is nothing to complain about. As the report says, “In Canada, in particular, reading scores have remained at least 20 points above the OECD average in all six PISA assessments – a remarkable achievement.”

The same cannot be said for kids in Australia, Finland, Iceland, New Zealand, the Slovak Republic, and Sweden, where performance has fallen, on average, between three and six points every three years.


Last week, Boston College released the results from Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a set of math and science tests given every four years to 10- and 14-year olds around the world. Asian countries soundly beat the rest of the world.

PISA results reflect much of the same trend.

The top four performers were Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, and Taipei (Taiwan). Japan, B-S-J-G (China), and Korea followed. The results this year also looked at some subnational regions: Quebec ranked between Hong Kong and Macao, and British Columbia placed right after Japan.

Among OECD countries there was a four-point drop between 2012 and 2015, but it wasn’t significant given changes in how the two tests were reported. Among all the 72 PISA participants, 11 improved, led by Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Qatar, and 12 deteriorated, including Korea and Turkey.

So should we all move to Singapore?


Ever since PISA made its 2000 grand debut, and Finland made it big, a sort of perverse educational arms race has ensued. Since we live in a more global world, and labor increasingly crosses borders, knowing how kids perform in other countries is fine.

But context matters. Finland has a population of around 5.5 million, and until recently, has lacked any real diversity. The US system is enormous and caters to far more kids living in poverty; overall it fares poorly, though some states—like Massachusetts—are all-star performers like Singapore.

And even in Singapore, the recognition that tests are putting extreme pressure on kids have led the government and its citizens to start de-emphasizing the importance of test results, producing videos about the value of effort, and imploring kids to understand that they are more than just their academic results.

The tests are just that: tests. Kids are more than that.