Unscrambling the PISA results

By December 8, 2016Current

TL;DR – Singapore students are really smart. Now let’s try to make them all equally smart.

via SMU

via SMU

Singapore has the world’s smartest students. That’s according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). It measures how well 15-year-olds around the world make use of their knowledge to solve problems in three categories – reading, mathematics and science. A total of 72 economies took part in the assessment in 2015. Singapore topped in all three categories.

The PISA study required students to answer questions on computer tests and questionnaires. Students from Singapore were found to be consistently strong in applying their knowledge and skills to real-life situations that they may not be familiar with. An example of the questions that students had to answer is as follows:

Sample question from PISA study. Image from OECD.org

Sample question from PISA study. Image from OECD.org

This question asks students to run simulations on the computer. Based on the data from the simulation, they are asked what the effect an increase in temperature on sweat volume after a one-hour run. They are then to explain the biological reason for the effect.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) attributed Singapore’s sterling performance to its shift towards applied learning. Mdm Loh Khah Gek, MOE’s Deputy Director-General of Education (Schools) said:

“It shows that our students can think critically, can deal with unfamiliar, novel situations and problems, and are able to, in that sense, use their skills across different domains as they look at their problems. And they are also very comfortable in a computer environment.”

We looked deeper into the PISA 2015 Results in Focus report. We found that it’s not just that our students did well. Even our weakest students do comparatively better. Only 4.8% of our students are considered low achievers in all the three areas tested. That’s the smallest share in the entire OECD. Comparatively, 13% of students in the entire OECD are considered low achievers in all the three areas tested.

Performance of students from Singapore (via PISA 2015)

Performance of students from Singapore (via PISA 2015)

Also, 48.8% of Singapore disadvantaged students who are considered resilient, i.e. beat the odds and perform at a high level. This compares to 29% in the entire OECD. Only three other economies have a higher proportion of disadvantaged students considered resilient than Singapore:

  • Vietnam – 75.5%
  • Macao – 64.6%
  • Hong Kong – 61.6%
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More needs to be done to improve social equity

But there are areas that Singapore can still improve on.

The PISA study found that a Singaporean student’s background and socio-economic status correlates quite strongly to his performance in the tests. In other words, a student from a better family background is likely to have performed better than a student from a family with lower household income.

Specifically, from the PISA study, a variation of 17% of Singaporean students’ performance in the tests can be explained by their socio-economic status. In contrast, Macao has the lowest variation (2%) and Argentina has the highest (26%). The OECD average is 12.9%.

The extent differences in education outcomes are associated with the social status of parents as well as the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

The extent differences in education outcomes are associated with the social status of parents as well as the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students in Singapore compared to OECD average. Image from OECD

This suggests that our education system still has some way to go to provide social equity. Our system still needs to evolve to ensure that students from families of lower income and whose parents have lower educational levels are able to perform as well as those who are from families of higher income and whose parents have higher educational levels.

That said, steps have already been taken to address this.

Next steps

Singapore now has schools like Northlight and Assumption Pathway to cater to the weakest students. More recently, Crest Secondary School and Spectra Secondary School were set up to specifically cater to students who are suited for a more hands-on style of education. These schools have more teachers per students. They have very different curriculum. More resources are invested in each student.

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Also, all secondary schools are on the path to develop applied learning programmes by 2017. These programmes are meant to complement their academic and student development programme and thus better cater to different styles of learning.

Put together, these programmes and more should help ensure that social mobility in Singapore remain high.

Currently, among young adults, 14% of those from the poorest 10 per cent of households moved into the top 20 per cent of income earners. In contrast, only 7.5% in the US and 8% in the UK did so.

With investments in education weighted in favour of students of lower socio-economic status, we should see them close the gap in educational outcomes with students from higher socio-economic status.


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Joey Wee

Author Joey Wee

I am nice, most of the time!

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