Brussels, 3 December 2013
EU school report: Some improvement in science and reading, but poor in maths
The latest OECD report on the maths, science and reading skills of 15 year olds reveals mixed results for Member States. The EU as a whole is seriously lagging behind in maths, but the picture is more encouraging in science and reading where Europe is on track to achieve its 2020 target for reducing the percentage of low achievers1 to below 15%. The results were presented in Brussels by Yves Leterme, Deputy Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and Jan Truszczynski, European Commission Director General for Education and Culture.
The findings reveal that ten Member States (BG, CZ, DE, EE, IE, HR, LV, AT, PL and RO) have achieved significant progress in diminishing their share of low achievers across all three basic skills since 2009. But five EU countries (EL, HU, SK, FI, SE) have seen an increase in the number of low achievers. Other Member States achieved mixed results (see table). Overall, EU performance is slightly better than the United States, but both lag behind Japan.
Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, commented: "I congratulate those Member States which have improved their performance, but it is clear that the EU as a whole needs to work harder. Member States must sustain their efforts to tackle low achievement in school education to ensure that youngsters have the skills they need to succeed in the modern world. The results are a reminder that investment in quality education is fundamental for Europe's future."
This view was echoed by Yves Leterme: "The PISA study shows what 15 year olds know and what they can do with what they know. In a global economy, success is no longer measured against national standards alone, but against the best-performing education systems. The results for the EU underline that the pace of improvement needs to increase if Member States are to avoid falling behind other economies," added the former Belgian Prime Minister.
The PISA survey has been carried out every three years since its launch in 2000. All 34 OECD member countries and 31 partner countries participated in PISA 2012, representing more than 80% of the world economy. Around 510 000 pupils aged from 15 years 3 months to 16 years and 2 months took part in the tests, which covered maths, reading and science, with the main focus on maths.
The evidence base that PISA produces enables policy-makers and educators to identify the characteristics of high-performing education systems and to adapt their policies.
The European Commission and OECD recently signed a cooperation agreement to work closer together in three areas: skills strategies, country analyses and international surveys.
What the findings say about the EU - Commission analysis:
Reading: The percentage of low achievers in reading has declined from 23.1% in 2006 and 19.7% in 2009 to 17.8% in 2012. If this trend continues, the 15% benchmark may be achievable by 2020. So far, only seven EU countries have reached this benchmark (EE, IE, PL, FI, NL, DE and DK). Notable progress has been achieved by CZ, DE, EE, IE, HR, LT, LU, AT, PL and RO.
Maths: No progress in improving the percentage of low achievers at EU level since 2009. However, four Member States (EE, FI, PL, NL) are among the top performing countries world-wide with a rate of low achievers in maths below the EU benchmark of 15%. No other Member State has yet reached this level. Significant progress (more than 2 percentage points) was made by BG, EE, IE, HR, LV, AT, PL and RO.
Science: Steady improvement in science skills across the Union. The EU percentage of low achievers has dropped from 20.3% in 2006 to 17.8% in 2009 and 16.6% in 2012. Ten Member States are below the 15% benchmark: CZ, DE, EE, IE, LV, NL, PL, SI, FI, UK. Steady progress has been achieved by CZ, DE, EE, IE, ES, LV, AT, PL and RO.
The analysis highlights that the socio-economic status of pupils has a significant bearing on performance levels, with those coming from low-income households much more likely to be low achievers in maths, science and reading. Other significant factors include the mainly negative effects of being of migrant background, the importance of attending early childhood education and care, as well as the gender gap in reading proficiency (girls do much better than boys).
The analysis also reveals the relationship between PISA results and the recently published OECD Survey of Adult Skills (IP/13/922). It concludes that, to be effective, policies need to focus on improvement of primary and secondary school education. Beyond that it is usually too late to compensate for the missed opportunity in school.
At 2pm today, Michael Davidson, OECD head of Early Childhood and Schools, and Jan Pakulski, head of the Commission's education statistics, surveys and studies unit, will brief education and training stakeholders on the implications of the PISA 2012 results for European policy-making. The briefing will take place in the auditorium of the Commission's Madou building, Place Madou 1, 1210 Saint-Josse-Ten-Noode. Accredited media are welcome.
The Commission will discuss the PISA 2012 findings with Member States to help identify measures to remedy weaknesses. A first exchange is planned at the next meeting of EU Education Ministers on 24 February. The results will also be used for the Commission's 2014 'European Semester' which produces country-specific recommendations linked to basic skills.
The new Erasmus+ (IP/13/1110) programme for education, training and youth, which starts in January, will support projects aimed at developing and upgrading school education. The survey results can also help Member States define priorities for support from the European Social Fund, which is a key source of investment in skills and training and can also improve education possibilities for vulnerable groups.
For more information
PISA 2012: EU performance and first inferences regarding education and training policies in Europe
European Commission: Education and training
Annex: Progress towards the benchmark of less than 15% low achievers in reading, maths and science among 15 year olds 
Source: OECD, PISA 2012. No data available for Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Note:  The PISA 2012 scores are divided into six proficiency levels ranging from the lowest, level 1, to the highest, level 6. Low achievement is defined as performance below level 2: reading (score <407.47), mathematics (score <420.07) and science (score<409.54).
Benchmark 2020: The share of 15 year-olds with low achievement in reading, mathematics and science 
'By 2020, the share of 15-year-olds with a low achievement in reading, maths and science should be less than 15%'. See May 2009 Council Conclusions on a strategic framework for European co-operation in education and training: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:C:2009:119:0002:0010:en:PDF