In spring 2015 the sixth "Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)" study tested the skills of approximately 6,500 15-year-old German secondary schools students from all educational tracks. 530,000 students of the same age participated in 72 countries around the world, including the 35 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which coordinated the study.
Together with the 2006 PISA study, the 2015 study focused on natural sciences for the second time: The majority of the tests addressed this topic area; in addition, secondary school students and teaching personnel filled out questionnaires on curriculum. The 15-year-olds completed the assignment on the computer for the first time. Furthermore, the scientists applied a refined model for scaling the data, both making it more difficult to draw comparisons with the results of earlier PISA studies.
"PISA 2015 demonstrates the permanent effect of the improvements made in German schools since the beginning of the PISA surveys. Hardly any other OECD country has succeeded in raising comparatively low student skill levels to a constantly high level over the last 15 years," says Prof. Kristina Reiss of the Center for International Student Assessment (ZIB) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). The ZIB conducts the German section of the study on behalf of the German Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. In addition to the TUM, the German Institute for International Educational Research (DIPF) and the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN) are also stakeholders in the ZIB.
Natural sciences: Skill levels corroborated, but less high performer
In the natural sciences the performance level of students in Germany (509 points) is significantly better than the average for OECD countries (493 points). This means Germany belongs to a group of countries including for example Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland, that is following the vanguard consisting of Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada. The share of particularly well-performing students is higher in Germany than the OECD average (10.6 % compared to 7.7 %), while the group of the particularly low-skilled 15-year-olds is smaller than the OECD average (17 % compared to 21.2 %).
This means that compared to 2006, the last time the PISA study spotlighted natural sciences, the results have remained at an unchanged high level. However, the share of students with especially high skill levels has dropped. At the “Gymnasien”, the students displayed a slightly lower level of performance than they did nine years ago (585 points). "This result points to the need to regain some territory in terms of promoting top performers, something which only very recently became a priority for German educational policy," says Reiss. "Some starting points here could be enhanced teacher training, new types of classroom formats and special talent development programs."
Less enjoyment in natural sciences
The enjoyment of natural sciences has dropped in all types of German schools since 2006, and interest in natural sciences has slowed. Student awareness of the fact that natural sciences can be important in life has weakened, as has student confidence in their own skills for these subjects. Nevertheless a greater number of students would consider pursuing a career in the natural sciences (23 %). This value is however still below the OECD average (30 %).
In international comparison, German students perceive relatively little support, feedback and differentiation on the part of their teachers. And 80 percent indicated that they were only rarely able to plan experiments themselves. Classroom structures have thus hardly changed since 2006. "However, educational research has shown that regular experiments, including those conceived and evaluated by the students, and a relationship to the everyday world are part of successful lessons in natural sciences," Reiss says.
Mathematics: Germany in the upper third
The students also confirmed their performance level in mathematics with 506 points, ranking them in the upper third of the OECD states. Performance resulted in a similar ranking in 2012, when this domain was the focus of the PISA study. However, the share of particularly high-performance 15-year-old students at the “Gymnasien” has dropped. In the years before 2012 the math skills of German students had significantly increased, and the share of poorly performing students was reduced.
Reading: Number of particularly high-performing readers on the rise
Germany's secondary school students also demonstrate above-average abilities in the third domain, reading (509 points). Here Germany is once again in the top third of OECD countries. Between 2009, the last time the PISA study focused on reading skills, and 2012, youth showed clear improvement with a clear reduction in the number of those with poor reading performance. This high level has continued, and the group of especially high performers has grown.
Boys overtake girls in natural sciences and catch up in reading
Boys and girls perform differently in all three domains. Boys outperformed girls for the first time in natural sciences (a 10 point difference). In particular, boys demonstrate higher skill levels in the areas "Physical Systems" and "Earth and Space Systems", although not in the field of "Living Systems", i.e. essentially in Biology. A larger share of German boys (27 %) would consider working in natural science professions than girls (18 %).
Mathematics is another area where boys perform better than girls. Boys are better represented among the highest performers, while girls constitute a majority in the lower-performing group. Germany is among the OECD countries with the largest disparity between the genders. When it comes to reading, however, girls display significantly better abilities, but the gap between boys and girls has been cut in half compared to all the previous PISA studies.
Immigration and parental income continue to play a major role
On average, secondary school students with an immigrant background achieve notably poorer results in the natural sciences (471 points compared to 532 points for students from non-immigrant backgrounds). This situation has not changed significantly since the 2006 PISA study. On the other hand, the studies held in 2009 and 2012 showed that the mathematics and reading skills of youth with an immigrant background have improved.
And the connection between the socio-economic status of parents and the natural science abilities of their children remains evident, although it has become less predictive since 2006. "One of the largest challenges facing the German educational system is far from mastered," says Reiss. "The knowledge and abilities of youth must not depend on their gender, national origin or their parents' income."
Reiss, K., Sälzer, C., Schiepe-Tiska, A., Klieme, E. & Köller, O. (2016). PISA 2015. Eine Studie zwischen Kontinuität und Innovation. Münster: Waxmann
Available at www.pisa.tum.de
Presentation of the PISA study at the TUM:
Skyline Lecture of the TUM School of Education with Prof. Dr. Kristina Reiss and PD Dr. Christine Sälzer
Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016, 5:30 pm
Technical University of Munich
TUM School of Education
Marsstraße 20 – 22, Lecture Hall 605 (6th floor)
Prof. Dr. Kristina Reiss
Center for International Student Assessment at the Technical University of Munich / TUM School of Education
Tel: +49 89 289 25399 / at Dec. 6, 2016: +49 162 2953123 (Press office)