Irish students top of class for reading – but significant drop in maths performance

Irish students best performing in reading literacy among 26 EU countries and 37 OECD countriesIrish students above average in reading, maths and scienceThe percentage of top performers in maths in Ireland is lower than the OECD averageBoys significantly outperforming girls in maths but girls performing better in reading

File image.

Amy Molloy

Irish students are the best performers in reading literacy in the European Union, according to a major international study - but there has been a significant drop in performance when it comes to mathematics.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has published the results of its latest programme for international student assessment (Pisa) which was carried out in 2022.

The tests assess the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds from 81 countries across the world in mathematics, reading and science.

Irish students scored above average in each of the subjects. The results show we are the best performing in reading literacy among the 37 countries in the OECD and the 26 EU countries. We have also moved from eighth place to second place for reading among the 81 countries. Singapore had the highest average performance.

However, there has been a steady decline in mathematics scores.

The percentage of top performers in maths in Ireland is lower than the OECD average and that of all of our comparator countries.

Ireland’s mean score in mathematics was a significant eight points lower than it was in 2018, but this was below the average 15-point decline across OECD countries during the same time period.

Pupils also answered a background questionnaire which sought information about the students themselves, their attitudes, dispositions and beliefs, their homes, and their school and learning experiences.

Nearly one-fifth of Irish students reported that they were not satisfied with their lives.

The Pisa results also looked at the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on learning. There was no clear difference in recent performance trends between education systems with limited school closures during Covid restrictions and systems that had longer lasting school closures, like Ireland, Jamaica and Brazil.

Some other interesting findings include how smartphones and tablets may be impacting learning. The data shows 45pc of students in the OECD countries reported feeling anxious or nervous if their phones were not near them.

Students who used phones for more than an hour a day for leisure purposes - like browsing social media apps or playing games - saw a big drop in maths scores.

On average, students who spent up to one hour a day on phones scored 49 points higher in maths, while students who were glued to their screens for between five and seven hours per day scored lower.

In total 5,569 students in 170 schools in Ireland participated in Pisa. The tests were held in October and November last year after being delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ireland’s overall performance in reading remained stable when compared to the 2018 results.

Some 89pc of students attained a level two or higher in this subject. The OECD average is 74pc. Ten percent of students scored at level five or higher, above the OECD average of seven percent.

Some 85pc of students scored a level two or higher in science, well above the OECD average of 76pc. Eight percent of students were among the top performers.

In maths, 81pc of students attained at least level two proficiency, above the 69pc average. However, we ranked below average when it came to top performers. Just seven percent were at level five or six. The OECD average is nine percent.

Irish boys outperformed girls in maths by 13 score points, while girls performed better than boys in reading by an average 18 score points.

In science literacy, we have moved from 22nd to 12th place out of the 81 countries. We have moved from twenty-first place to eleventh place in maths.

However, while we are above-average in each of the three subjects, there were some concerning findings when it came to students’ overall happiness.

In a response to questions about a sense of belonging and satisfaction with life, 81pc said they made friends easily at school, 71pc felt they belonged, while 14pc reported feeling lonely. Another 14 percent said they felt like an outsider and were left out of things.

Students’ satisfaction with life declined in many countries. In 2022, 19pc of Irish students reported they were not satisfied, compared to 18pc in 2018. On average across OECD countries, the proportion of students who are not satisfied with life increased from 11pc in 2015 to 18pc in 2022.

Overall, Pisa found the average student performances in OECD countries are heading in the wrong direction. Some 25pc of students - representing 16 million children - are estimated to be low performers in maths, reading and science.

This cycle saw an unprecedented drop in performance. When compared to 2018, the mean performance in OECD countries fell by 10 score points in reading and almost 15 in maths.

The report states Covid may have had an impact, but is not solely to blame. It found educational trajectories were negative before the pandemic hit, which indicate issues in the education systems are to blame.

However, Education Minister Norma Foley said overall, the results “are extremely positive news for Ireland”.

“We have retained our place among a small set of high achieving countries at a time where particular strain was put on school communities globally due to Covid-19,” she said.

“We have also ensured that the number of low achieving students remains amongst the lowest in the 81 countries tested.

“Pisa 2022 was delayed by one year due to the impact of COVID-19 on our education system. The pandemic presented unprecedented challenges, but the resilience shown by schools during this time is to be commended. I want to particularly pay tribute to the dedication of teachers and school leaders to provide a stable and supportive learning.

“Our mathematics results have declined since 2018 but comparator countries such as Poland, Finland and Sweden have experienced a steeper decline than Ireland. We have managed to move from twenty-first to eleventh place in the listings for mathematics and our students are still performing at above average level. We can learn from these results and put measures in place to help to further develop our students’ critical thinking”.

Results in mathematics were particularly in favour of males, while females performed better in reading.

Minister Foley said the Government is committed to promoting the uptake of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in schools with a particular focus on females.

“We will take account of the Pisa results in considering the implementation of actions from the STEM Education Implementation Plan and in the development of a new literacy, numeracy and digital literacy strategy,” she added.

Some 690 000 students took the assessment in 2022, representing about 29 million 15-year-olds in the schools of the 81 participating countries and economies.

Students took two hour-long tests, each devoted to one subject. Different students were given different test questions and different combinations of subjects. Test items were a mixture of multiple-choice questions and questions requiring students to construct their own responses.

Students also answered a background questionnaire.