No complacency despite good results

A return to top rankings in reading and maths should not lead to complacency over school reforms, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has said.

Test results from 65 countries show Irish 15-year-olds are among the top 10 in the developed world at reading and science, and are well above average at maths.

The scores come as a major relief to the Government after alarm over the last round of OECD testing in 2009 in which maths and reading scores fell dramatically, as did our rankings internationally.

The figures published yesterday mean those 2009 scores in Irish schools were, as previously suggested, down to a number of population and testing factors.

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests take place every three years and 5,016 students at 182 Irish schools took part in March last year. Although far better than our 2009 scores, Irish results in reading and maths are very similar to those in previous PISA cycles.

The global results show Asian countries outperform the rest of the world, with Shanghai-China and Singapore top in maths, which was the main focus of the 2012 tests. Ireland only made it into the top band of countries at maths because the OECD average fell and slightly fewer of our teens than ever before are categorised as high achievers.

Despite the rankings, Mr Quinn wants further improvements to bring our top performers at maths in line with the very best countries, saying the news is very good but could be better.

“I’m saying that because of the competition for talent internationally, with scarce foreign investment looking around to invest in countries that have the brain-power they want to capitalise on.”

He praised teachers for helping Ireland have one of the lowest numbers of students unable to master the simplest maths problems, with just 17% of Irish pupils in the low-achievers category, compared to 23% across the OECD. Less than 10% of teens are at the lower two standards of reading, against 18% in the OECD states.

“It is a tribute to teachers who are going that extra mile with people who might not be as bright, [and] to their real care for students.”

Analysis of Ireland’s results by the Educational Research Centre at St Patrick’s College in Dublin shows that differences between Irish schools account for just 18% of variances in their maths scores, half the variance in the OECD, suggesting our education system is far more equitable than in most other countries. But although improved since 2009, it has risen from 15% in 2003.

The 4.5% of students who are immigrants with a first language other than English did significantly poorer than native students in print reading but scored similarly to them on other tests.

* Read the Irish report here: exa.mn/1g8 or the full international results here: exa.mn/1g9

Stronger awareness of tests

A range of factors contributed to Ireland’s shock slump in PISA rankings for maths and reading in 2009.

Research carried out for the Department of Education by Statistics Canada verified that, while there may have been a drop in standards, it was exaggerated by a combination of influences.

Around three-quarters of schools had the tests administered by their own teachers in 2009.

But the Department of Education and Educational Research Centre (ERC) — which runs PISA in Ireland for the department — provided test administrators in the tests done in Mar 2012.

ERC’s Gerry Shiel said the extent to which this might have contributed to falling scores in 2009 can not be precisely measured, and there was much stronger awareness of PISA among teacher and students last year.

“We have a test co-ordinator in each school, usually a teacher, and their job is to prepare the students for the assessment. This time around, they imparted to students the high importance of doing well in the assessment and I think that’s shown in the results.”

Response

Reaction to Ireland’s PISA 2012 results:

* “The scores represent significant achievements by students and teachers and are a tribute to their resilience at a time when the austerity agenda has sidelined the irrefutable, clear case for progressive and appropriate investment in education”

— John MacGabhann, general secretary of the Teachers’ Union of Ireland

* “One of the key attributes that has continued to attract strong levels of foreign direct investment into Ireland in recent years is our young and well-educated population. It is now important thatGovernment continue to build upon these successes and consistently review what is required of the education system to support the needs of industry now and into the future”

— American Chamber of Commerce Ireland

* “While today is a good day for all those involved in the Irish education service, the PISA 2012 report should also act as a warning signal for the future. Earlier this year the OECD report Education at a Glance 2013 demonstrated that investment in education as a proportion of public expenditure has declined significantly in Ireland since 2005. This disinvestment in second- level schools is having a serious impact on the resources and services available to students”

— Pat King, general secretary, Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland

* “Given the pivotal role that science and technology will play in future economic growth, the science scores are particularly encouraging. The under-performance of higher-achieving students in maths is a matter of concern”

— Tony Donohoe, head of education policy, employers’ group Ibec

* “Today’s results are a tribute to primary and post-primary teachers, they undermine the credibility of those who like to talk down the Irish education system”

— Sheila Nunan, general secretary, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation

* “These improved rankings for Irish students are very encouraging and are further evidence of how changing teaching methodologies are improving the quality of secondary school education”

— Clive Byrne, director, National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals

* Test yourself online:

www.oecd.org/pisa/test

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