Catalonia beats Spain, EU, OECD in PISA report

Catalan students pass all tests for the first time, improvement seen in math and sciences while stagnant in reading comprehension

For the first time ever, Catalan schools have passed all three areas assessed by the PISA report: mathematics, science, and reading comprehension. They achieved or exceeded 500 points in all three tests, and this benchmark means that the results for Catalonia are, for the first time, above the average for Spain, the European Union, and the OECD in all the tests.

While in previous editions Catalonia had failed in math and scientific competence, this time around headway in science --12 points higher-- brought the mark to 504 points, while in math the score was 500 points --7 points higher than before. Reading comprehension, with 500 points, lost ground with respect to the previous PISA report in 2012. The average for Spain, the EU, and the OECD was below 500 points out of 1,000 for all three subjects.

Where does that leave Catalonia, with this improvement, compared to the rest of the 72 countries included in the report? In scientific competence, it holds the 19th position in a ranking led by Singapore, the country that received the highest marks in all three areas. Japan, Estonia, and Taiwan also feature among the top ten, while Spain holds the 30th position.

Scientific competence has always been the stumbling block for Catalan students, where they achieved the poorest results. This time, however, Catalonia —together with Portugal— is the OECD region that has seen the highest growth, an increase of 12 points over the previous PISA report. And it is the test of scientific literacy that carries the most weight in this edition.

The other area that was --and continues to be-- difficult is mathematics. Nevertheless, this year Catalan students managed to score 500 points, which improves their mark from three years ago by seven points. On a worldwide scale, Catalonia captured the 20th position, behind countries such as Japan, Switzerland, and Canada, and also behind Sweden, the United Kingdom, and France. Spain took the 32nd slot.

The PISA tests are the worldwide reference in education. Governments and institutions use them as a guide when designing their policies. Every three years they assess 15-year-old students, this time in 72 countries and regions. In the 2015 edition, a total of 537,591 students were tested from OECD countries. The Catalan sample is of 1,769 students from 52 schools, and the tests were sat on May 8th and June 5th.

The PISA data provide a different snapshot from that of the TIMSS report last week, which had Catalonia below the Spanish average in mathematics and science. PISA, in contrast, puts Catalonia above the nationwide average because of the assessment methodology, which in the case of PISA is based on competences, according to the Department of Education. In addition, they examine students when they are 15, at the end of a cycle, and not at 11 as in the TIMSS.

Catalan Education ministry takes credit

Unlike what happened with mathematics and science, in reading comprehension the report shows stagnation. Catalonia lost one point with respect to the previous edition and continues a similar trend to that of previous years. Catalonia holds the 19th position, behind Finland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden, among others. In contrast, it was higher than the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Spain captured the 25th position.

Meritxell Ruiz, Minister of Education, highlighted the good scores: "We are very pleased. The results show room for improvement, but the PISA report proves that we are on the right path", she claimed. For Ruiz, the improvement in marks is based on the fact that Catalonia also evaluates "competences", the same as the PISA report. In addition, she feels that the results validate the "transformation of the educational model" being carried out in Catalonia since the implementation of the Education Law (the LEC). "Different governments have come and gone, but all have applied the LEC: this has provided stability to the system", noted Ruiz.

Xavier Bonal, Professor of Educational Sociology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) and coordinator of the PISA report for the Bofill Foundation, is less optimistic, and believes that Catalonia is still at approximately the same level as in the previous edition and that "more years are needed to see how established the improvement is."

Trailing behind the top regions in Spain

Although it surpassed the Spanish average, Catalonia remains behind the top 3 Spanish regions. It science, it holds the sixth position, behind Castile and Leon —which came first--, Madrid, and Aragon, among others. The community that finished last was Andalusia.

In reading comprehension, Catalonia holds the seventh position, again behind Castile and Leon, Madrid, and Navarre, among others. Extremadura finished last in this area. The same is true in mathematics: Catalonia is sixth behind Castile and Leon, Madrid, and Navarre. The Canary Islands obtained the worst results in this area.

Another element that the PISA report shows is the level of student performance. That is, the percentages of high marks and low marks. In science, the percentage of students who obtained the lowest marks dropped from 18.9% to 15.7%. In reading comprehension the percentage of low marks remained nearly the same, rising from 15% to 15.4%. In contrast, the highest marks went from 7.3% to 6.2%. In mathematics, the worst marks fell from 20% to 17.7%, and the highest increased from 8.7% to 10.2% of Catalan students assessed in this edition.

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