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"PISA Plus" study: 16-year-olds learning little in terms of application of knowledge

PISA: Hardly any progress from ninth to tenth grade

Students working with laboratory equipment
The PISA tests determine wether students learn for life, not only for exams. (Image: kali9 / istockphoto.com)

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Germany's secondary school students hardly improve at all in the tenth grade when it comes to applying mathematics, natural sciences and reading in everyday life according to a new study, "PISA Plus". The German PISA team retested the ninth-graders of the 2012 PISA study one year later.

The PISA test determines whether or not ninth-graders have acquired skills that they can apply in everyday life. One example of a test question in mathematics is calculating the floor space of a particular apartment. German students were above the international average in the 2012 PISA study, but were not in the vanguard. Were the young adults subsequently able to improve from the ninth to the tenth grades? To answer this question, approximately 4900 test participants were asked to solve "PISA questions" again one year later, at the age of 16.

"PISA Plus" has shown that the secondary school students exhibited on average only minimal improvements during the tenth grade in the ability to apply mathematics in everyday situations. They gained no new application skills in natural sciences or reading. Furthermore, the gap between the best-performing and weakest students in mathematics and the natural sciences widened, meaning that the less competent students actually showed a tendency towards change for the worse. This result is reflected in a comparison of the various school types in Germany's secondary educational system: Only the students at secondary grammar schools ("Gymnasium") were more skilled than one year earlier.

"Tests should be more closely oriented to applicable knowledge"

"Apparently instruction still does not put enough emphasis on skills preparing the student for everyday life," says the German PISA coordinator Prof. Kristina Reiss of the Center for International Student Assessment (ZIB) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). In addition to TUM, the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) and the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN) are also involved in ZIB.

"Schools at which school-leaving examinations take place after the tenth grade are under pressure to specifically convey knowledge in the last school year that prepares students for these examinations," says Reiss. "The consequence should be a stronger orientation towards general and applicable knowledge not only in curricula, but in the examinations as well. This doesn't mean that it would not be possible to teach as much specialized knowledge, as is sometimes presumed in the public discourse. It means much more that the students have a much better grasp of the meaning and contextual dependencies of a given subject. This way schools also prepare students better for acquiring more complex interdisciplinary knowledge in their careers and at university."

Students with an immigrant background keeping up

In terms of development during the tenth class the scientists found no differences between young adults with and without an immigrant background with regards to mathematics, natural sciences or reading. However, the initial skill level of the students with an immigrant background was lower.

"The schools are apparently succeeding in properly accommodating students in these grades, independent of their personal histories," says Reiss. "In order to reduce generally significant performance differences, we have to begin as early as the primary school years, in particular with regards to language support."

Performance differences persist between girls and boys

And the development for boys and girls was very similar as well: Neither gender made progress in natural sciences or reading. However, the girls slightly reduced the boys' lead in mathematics.

"The study confirms the fact that the decisive phase in the development of gender-specific differences is the period from the fifth to the seventh or eighth grades," says Reiss. "In primary school, interests are very evenly distributed between girls and boys. And starting in the ninth grade the gap no longer increases. This means we'll have to find a way to prevent this disparity from developing during the first years of secondary school."

Progress in educational standards

In addition to these results, however, the "PISA Plus" study also shows that when test assignments are more closely oriented to curricula, the students make progress from the ninth to the tenth grade. In order to test for this development, the researchers asked the same young adults to solve assignments from the German state comparative study, which is conducted on a regular basis to monitor compliance with the educational standards of the individual German states. All the participants had also taken part in this test one year before. Here a mathematics assignment could be for example specification of the coordinates of a triangle which is inverted relative to a straight line.

In terms of the educational standards the students increased on average in both mathematics and natural sciences (reading was not tested in the 2012 state comparative study). The performance differences among the students were smaller, with improvements seen at schools other than secondary grammar schools (Gymnasium) as well.

PISA Plus:

"PISA Plus" comprises various individual studies. In addition to the Center for International Student Assessment (ZIB), participants included the Institute for Educational Quality Improvement (IQB), which also conducts the state comparative studies, Leuphana University of Lüneburg and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA).


Reiss, K., Klieme, E., Köller, O., & Stanat, P. (Eds.) (2017). PISA Plus 2012–2013: Kompetenzentwicklung im Verlauf eines Schuljahres; Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaften 20(2) - Special issue, Vol. 33. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

More information:

PISA studies


Prof. Dr. Kristina Reiss
Center for International Student Assessment (ZIB) at the Technical University of Munich / TUM School of Education
Tel: +49 89 289 22798 (Corporate Communications Center)