The OECD’s PISA rankings and the EBRD region

By Sung-Ah Kyun and Alexander Plekhanov

Every three years, the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducts knowledge tests among 15-year old secondary school students in all the OECD and a number of non-OECD countries. Last week, the OECD released its latest round of survey results conducted in 2012, which had 65 countries participate worldwide, of which 18 are countries where the EBRD invests.

In the EBRD region, three countries ranked above the OECD average: Estonia, Poland and Slovenia. Poland came out as the top improver in the 2012 round of the survey, relative to 2009. Notably, Latvia ranked above the United States and the average of Asian emerging markets.

Among the bottom performers, Jordan and Tunisia (the two SEMED countries that participated in the survey) and Albania scored below Brazil and the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regional averages.

Overall, the PISA results improved in the EBRD region. This means that the gap between the quality of secondary education in the region and that in an average OECD country -- highlighted in Chapter 4 of this year’s Transition Reportmay be somewhat narrower than previously estimated.

Even so, there remains a substantial gap to close, and this gap is even larger when it comes to the quality of tertiary education.

Reassuringly, the EBRD countries of operations that are lagging behind in terms of PISA performance on average made more progress. Virtually all countries in South-East Europe improved their average scores.

Remarkably, resource-rich countries in pursuit of diversification, Kazakhstan and Russia, also made substantial progress -- from relatively low levels. This trend, provided it continues, will assist these countries’ diversification efforts (see Diversifying Russia, Chapter 5, for further

The progress of the bottom performers within the EBRD region is even more remarkable. It contrasts with the trend outside the EBRD region, where countries that already do well, particularly in Asia, saw further improvements in test scores, while poor performers tended to continue to perform weaker, resulting further divergence in educational outcomes.

Within the EBRD region, there too are exceptions. Jordan moved further down the league. Azerbaijan and the Kyrgyz Republic, two resource-dependent economies that were among the bottom PISA performers globally, dropped out of the survey altogether. This means that it will make it harder to assess the extent of the skill problems in these countries – and unlikely to make the problem go away.

The PISA tests cover basic areas of mathematics, science, and analytical reading (interpretation and evaluation of information presented in the form of continuous texts or graphs and tables). They include a combination of multiple choice and open-ended questions (the latter accounts for 30-40 per cent of total score).

In each country, between 4,500 and 10,000 randomly selected students across various regions take part in the survey. This year, around 510,000 students between 15 years 3 months and 16 years and 2 months participated in the assessment, representing 28 million 15-year-olds in schools in 65 countries.

Previous studies, including the 2008 Transition Report, Chapter 3, found a strong link between secondary education outcomes, as measured by PISA scores, and countries’ long-term growth performances.