03 December, 2019 - Major international study finds Ireland’s students among top performers in reading literacy

Minister McHugh welcomes publication of PISA 2018 results, showing students significantly above average in reading, science and mathematics

The Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh TD today (Tuesday 3 December 2019) welcomed the 2018 OECD PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results which show Ireland’s 15 year-olds are among the best in reading literacy and are performing significantly higher than the OECD average in mathematics and science.

PISA takes place every three years and aims to measure how well 15 year-old students are performing in three areas – reading, mathematics and science.

The key findings of the 2018 assessments include

  • Ireland ranks 4th out of 36 OECD countries and 3rd out of 27 EU countries for reading literacy.
  • Ireland ranks 8th out of 77 countries/regions involved in PISA 2018 for reading literacy.[1]
  • In reading, Ireland has significantly fewer low-performing students (11.8% below level 2) and significantly more high performers (12.1% at levels 5 & 6) than the OECD average.
  • PISA results show the difference in performance between schools in Ireland is lower than the OECD average.
  • In Ireland, the difference between schools in student performance in reading literacy is less than half of what it is, on average, across OECD countries.[2]
  • Post-primary schools in Ireland can therefore be considered relatively equitable, as well as having above average performance in the three assessment domains.

Minister McHugh said: “Our focus on creating an equitable education system is working. It is particularly heartening to see how the variation between schools is significantly lower than other countries in these PISA results.

“A large part of that success is down to the focus of Government on the Deis programme.

“Irish students have extremely high standards when it comes to reading, among the best there is. The number of low achieving students is among the lowest in the 77 countries tested.

“It is an envious position to be in and credit must go to the education initiatives being promoted by the Department like the National Strategy on Literacy and Numeracy for Learning and Life (2011-2020) and how these are adopted by our schools, thanks to the dedication of our teachers.

“Overall in maths and science results are relatively stable and our students are performing at an above average level, yet we can improve further. I am confident that the changes which the Junior Cycle is bringing will help the development of our students’ critical thinking. It is no longer just about the facts and knowledge that we teach our young people but helping them see how they can put that into use.

“The Government is committed to promoting the uptake of STEM in post-primary and a key focus is increasing participation of young women. We will be taking account of the PISA results in considering actions in the next STEM Implementation Plan from 2020.

“And as part of our work to provide more technology in schools, since 2017, the Government has invested €110 million in ICT in the classroom. That will continue with another €100 million under the Project Ireland 2040 Digital Strategy in Schools and it will ensure students will become more and more adept at using technologies for education.”

PISA 2018 is a computer-based testing format. About half of the 5,000 plus Irish students who sat the tests had previous experience in this type of testing.

Computer-based testing was first introduced in PISA 2015. This allowed PISA to test students’ ability to apply scientific investigative skills in virtual experiments. In 2018, the proportion of such items was increased, reflecting a growing emphasis on measuring students’ ability to apply scientific skills, rather than their knowledge of scientific facts.

Only 2% of the Irish students taking the PISA 2018 test had experienced the new science curriculum. The 2021 round of PISA will provide a better estimation of the extent to which the Junior Cycle changes in science are effective.

Other findings from PISA 2018

  • Ireland has a lower percentage of low-performing students in all three domains than on average across OECD countries.
  • Girls perform better than boys in reading, with a difference of 23.2 score points.[3]
  • Ireland’s performance in science and mathematics has remained relatively stable – above the OECD average scores – between 2015 and 2018 cycles.
  • Girls perform slightly better than boys in science but the results are not considered statistically significant.
  • In science, students ranked 17th out of 37 OECD countries, 11th out of 28 EU countries and 22nd out of 78 participating countries/regions.
  • Ireland has a lower than average number of low performing students in science.
  • In mathematics, Irish students ranked 16th out of 37 OECD countries and 21st out of 78 participating countries/regions.
  • Ireland has a lower than average number of low performing students in maths.

Further information:

The national report on PISA 2018 in Ireland can be accessed at www.erc.ie.

International reports on PISA 2018 can be accessed at www.oecd.org/pisa.

Sample items from PISA reading literacy, science and mathematics can be viewed in the national report for Ireland. They can be taken interactively at www.oecd.org/pisa  

Appendix A

Background to PISA 2018

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a project of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) that aims to measure how well students, at age 15, are prepared to meet the challenges they may encounter in future life, including education.

PISA takes place every three years and assesses students in the three domains of reading, mathematics and science.

PISA is based on a random sample of 15 year-old students in each of the participating countries. In 2018, over 500,000 15 year-olds in 79 countries/economies, including all 37 OECD countries, took part in PISA. In Ireland, 5,577 students in 157 schools took part.

Of the countries/economies which took part, 78 had gathered achievement data that could be compared.

Reading literacy was the major assessment domain in 2018, with science and mathematics assessed as minor domains. In Ireland, PISA is implemented by the Educational Research Centre, on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills.

In Ireland, the PISA Main Study was carried out in March and April 2018. Students were spread over five year levels: First/Second Year (1.9%), Third Year (61.6%), Transition Year (27.9%) and Fifth Year (8.5%).

Of participating students, 49.8% were female, and 50.2% were male (weighted percentages).

PISA tests were scaled to an OECD mean of 500 and a standard deviation of 100 in the first cycle in which a domain had major status – 2000 for reading literacy, 2003 for mathematics, and 2006 for science. This means that performance in 2015 can be linked back to these and subsequent cycles.

How is PISA administered?

PISA is steered by member governments through the OECD, on the basis of shared, policy-driven interests. Since 2015, PISA has been managed by a consortium of five institutions under the direction of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) in the United States. In Ireland, PISA is implemented by the Educational Research Centre (ERC) on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills (DES).

In Ireland, PISA 2018 was administered in schools by inspectors from the DES, alongside retired inspectors and principals and representatives of the ERC.

For the main study, a representative sample of 157 schools in Ireland was selected to participate in PISA 2018 by Westat, one of the organisations in the international PISA consortium.

In order to obtain nationally representative samples in PISA, each country advises Westat on the characteristics of the post-primary education that are structurally, demographically and academically relevant. Naturally, these vary from country to country.

In Ireland, schools were grouped on the sampling frame (list of all schools containing PISA-eligible students) by enrolment size (large, medium or small, depending on the number of 15 year-olds enrolled) and sector (secondary, ETB/vocational, community/ comprehensive).

Within each of the resulting nine groups, schools were ordered by the percentage of 15 year-old female students in the school, and socioeconomic quartile, based on percent of students in a school with a Junior Certificate examination fee waiver. In each selected school, up to 44 students aged 15 years (those born in 2002) were selected to participate.

What does PISA assess?

Each cycle of PISA focuses on one ‘major domain’, either reading literacy, mathematical literacy or science literacy, to which the majority of testing time is devoted. The ‘minor domains’ provide a less detailed account of achievement.

Reading Literacy was the major domain in PISA 2018, while the minor domains were mathematics and science. Reading Literacy was also a major domain in 2009 and 2000. Because Reading Literacy was tested more thoroughly in 2000, 2009 and 2018, the OECD believes that more accurate trend data for Reading Literacy can be established by comparing student performance in these years.

PISA 2018 focused on reading as the major domain. It measures students’ ability in:

Locating information; Understanding; Evaluating and reflecting.

PISA also collects contextual information through questionnaires completed by students and principals, as well as some information from national sources (such as the DES post-primary database). In Ireland, 2018, the questionnaires administered included:

  • the core student questionnaire
  • optional short questionnaire for students on ICT
  • optional short questionnaire for students on Educational Careers
  • optional short questionnaire for students on Well-Being.
  • a core school questionnaire for school principals or their nominee(s)
  • a parent questionnaire
  • a nationally-developed questionnaire for teachers of Junior Cycle English.

The ERC intends to publish further reports based on results from these surveys.

How did the tests in 2018 differ from earlier PISA assessments?

Originally, PISA was administered as a pencil and paper test. Since 2015, it has been fully-administered on computer in a majority of participating countries, including all OECD countries.

70 of 79 participating countries, including Ireland, administered the assessment using a computer-based platform. Improvements were introduced in PISA 2015 that allow for more test questions per domain.

Changes in the Reading Literacy test

PISA attempts to measure students ability to use reading literacy skills in the real world. The PISA 2018 test reflects changes in our understanding of the nature of reading literacy. Mainly, these arise because of the changing nature of reading – for example, reading online documents, websites and social media involves using literacy skills that would not have been common in 2000. In the 2018 cycle, the materials in the reading literacy test included new dynamic text formats with additional functionalities, for example, multiple-texts, hyperlinks, navigation and dropdown menus.

Alongside the development of new test content and item formats, PISA 2018 introduced adaptive testing for computer-based countries in order to improve the accuracy and fairness of the reading test. The test is adaptive to each student’s ability level - students start on a common set of items, and then, at intervals, the student progresses onto items of a lower or higher difficulty, based on their previous performance.

Other test changes

The assessment of scientific literacy in 2018 comprised of a subset of test items from the 2015 assessment of science. Trend items from earlier cycles were presented alongside new science stimulus materials developed for PISA 2015 science assessment. The new item types included interactive items, where students were asked to simulate experiments by controlling for a number of variables at the same time and evaluating outcomes with reference to the question being asked.

Contextual factors for consideration when looking at performance and trends

  • PISA is now a computer-based assessment (since 2015), and the tests in reading and science now include new item formats and an assessment mode that students in Ireland may not be familiar with.
  • The number of OECD member countries continues to increase. This means that the OECD average periodically changes with the addition of new countries. In addition, B-S-J-Z (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang) China in 2018 differs from B-S-J-G China in 2015, as one province, Guangdong, has been replaced by Zhejiang.
  • The OECD average has been steadily decreasing across the three domains in the most recent cycles of PISA.
  • Students participating in PISA 2018 in Ireland, who were drawn from a range of grade levels between first and fifth years (with a majority in third year), had studied or were studying a mix of subjects based on Junior Certificate syllabi published prior to 2012, and several subjects under the new Junior Cycle specifications since phase one changes were introduced in 2014.
  • The English specification was introduced in 2014 and thus all participating students in PISA 2018 studied under the new specification.
  • The new science specification was introduced in 2016, with the first round of students sitting the examination in June 2019. Therefore, less than 2% of students participating in PISA 2018 studied under the new specification for science.
  • The new mathematics specification was introduced in September 2018; therefore, no students participating in PISA 2018 studied under the new specification.
  • The percentages of students performing at the highest levels in science and mathematics have receded slightly in recent cycles. In mathematics there were ‎significantly fewer high achievers in 2018 compared with 2012.
  • Ireland has relatively low ‎proportions of high-performing students compared to countries with similar mean scores in ‎mathematics and science. 
  • The Educational Research Centre plans to publish a number of additional analyses on policy-relevant themes such as student well-being, digital technology, reading literacy and on the performance in PISA of students in DEIS schools, in 2020-2021.

Appendix B

Scores in Reading Literacy

Scores in Science 

Scores in Mathematics

[1] The OECD average for reading literacy in 2018 is based on 36 countries, while for mathematics and science, the average is based on 37 countries. Reporting on PISA 2018 reading literacy data for Spain is deferred until sub-optimal response patterns are investigated. In addition, while 79 countries/regions participated in PISA 2018, reference is made to 78 countries/economies (77 in the case of reading literacy due to Spain) in reporting; full international comparability of results for Vietnam could not be assured at the time this report was published.

[2] The between-school variation, as a percentage of the average total of variation in reading performance across OECD countries, is low in Ireland at 11.1%, compared to 29.0% on average across OECD countries.

[3] OECD score points are explained in Notes to Editors