OECD PISA results: Maths and reading skills in 'unprecedented drop'. Here's why that matters

Reading performance dropped across the OECD in the latest PISA results.

Reading performance dropped across the OECD in the latest PISA results. Image: Unsplash/Susan Q Yin on U

Joe Myers
Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • The first PISA study since the pandemic shows an "unprecedented drop" in maths and reading performance.
  • There are lessons to be learned from resilient education systems around the world though.
  • It's vital education systems adapt and evolve to prepare students for the economies of the future, says a World Economic Forum white paper that aims to help develop them.

The first Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study into student performance and well-being since the pandemic has been released – and it paints a concerning picture.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (better known as PISA) 2022 saw an "unprecedented drop in performance" across the OECD regions. Compared to the last edition, in 2018, the mean performance in reading fell by 10 score points, while maths fell by nearly 15.

This drop in maths was particularly apparent in countries like Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway and Poland, says the OECD, which all saw drops of 25 score points or more.

And, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on learning is only part of the reason, with declines in maths and science scores already clear before 2018.

"COVID probably played some role but I would not overrate it," OECD director of education Andreas Schleicher told a news conference, Reuters reports. "There are underlying structural factors and they are much more likely to be permanent features of our education systems that policymakers should really take seriously."

Trends in mathematics, reading and science performance.
The latest PISA presents a concerning picture. Image: OECD

Why the data matters

PISA was launched in 2010 and so provides a long-term picture of educational attainment across 81 OECD member countries and economies. With around 700,000 15-year-olds tested in the latest PISA, the data and insights are a valuable tool to countries around the world.

“PISA 2022 helps to identify the comparative strengths of education systems that have performed well despite recent shocks," explained OECD Secretary-General Mathias Cormann at the report's launch.

"This enables policymakers across the 81 participating countries and economies to rely on these insights, adapting them to their particular circumstances as required and pursue reforms to education systems for a brighter, more prosperous future.”

Building education systems that equip students with the skills, attitudes and values for the economies of the future is essential. In January 2022, the World Economic Forum released its Defining Education 4.0: A Taxonomy for the Future of Learning white paper, which aims to help develop these education systems.

The Education 4.0 Taxonomy
Building the education systems of the future Image: World Economic Forum

Achieving basic proficiency in these skills will also be essential to the jobs of the future, particularly as reskilling and adapting to the disruption of trends like artificial intelligence, become ever more important. The World Economic Forum's Future of Jobs Report 2023 found that employers estimate 44% of workers' skills will be disrupted in the next five years.

The Forum's Education 4.0 Alliance is working with government and businesses to ensure education systems are preparing students for these jobs of the future.

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Bright spots

The report highlights several areas of hope, though, including strong performers, but also the work done in many economies to expand access to education. "Significant progress" is being made towards universal secondary education in countries like Cambodia, Indonesia, Morocco and Paraguay, among others, it says.

There have also been strides made in more equitable outcomes, regardless of socioeconomic status, for example, in Canada, Japan, Latvia and the United Kingdom – again, amongst others. However, the report does warn that socio-economic status is still closely tied to performance.

For example, socio-economically disadvantaged students are seven times more likely than advantaged students not to achieve basic maths proficiency.

But, several economies, particularly in East Asia, show strong performance across maths, science and reading, offering lessons to other education systems.


Lessons for the world

The OECD highlights 10 lessons that can be learned from resilient education systems – some specific to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, some far broader.

1. Keep schools open longer for more students.

2. Prepare students for autonomous learning.

3. Build strong foundations for learning and well-being for all students.

4. Limit the distractions caused by using digital devices in class.

5. Strengthen school-family partnerships and keep parents involved in student learning.

6. Delay the age at selection into different education programmes.

7. Provide additional support to struggling students instead of requiring them to repeat a grade.

8. Ensure adequate, high-quality education staff and materials.

9. Establish schools as hubs for social interaction.

10. Combine school autonomy and quality assurance mechanisms.

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