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Estonia drops to fourth in latest PISA rankings

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Empty classroom in an Estonian school. Photo is illustrative.
Empty classroom in an Estonian school. Photo is illustrative. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

Although Estonia's 15-year-olds were only outperformed by their contemporaries from two other OECD countries – Japan and South Korea – in the latest PISA test (that excludes Singapore, an OECD partner country), the math and functional reading skills of Estonia's youth have fallen over the last four years. Teachers say this is mainly down to distance learning due to the pandemic, while the lack of sufficiently qualified teachers may also play a role.

"Compared to 2018, we are still up at the top. Our students have been top performers. We can all be proud of the Estonian education system and its results," said Estonian Minister of Education and Research Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200), at a press conference to present the results. Kallas stressed that almost all countries, except Japan, had less points this time round than in 2018.

"If we compare them with the rest of the world, our young people are certainly not lagging behind. They are doing perfectly well. However, I very much hope that this is not the start of a new trend. At the moment, there are around 400 teachers of Estonian language and literature in our schools who have not trained as Estonian teachers. I am afraid that this might be one of the reasons [for the result]," said Kaja Sarapuu, chair of the Association of Estonian Language Teachers (EES).

In last year's PISA test, Estonia's 15-year-olds scored 13 and 12 points lower in math and functional reading than the same age group managed in 2018. In the science literacy test, basic school pupils scored four points less than before.

Trends in performance in mathematics, reading and science. Source: OECD, PISA 2020 database.

Anneli Nellis, a math teacher at Tartu's Tamme School, did not rule out the possibility that the test may have included math problems that were particularly difficult for pupils to understand and that participants from all countries had problems solving them.  

Nellis highlighted the impact of the Coronavirus pandemic as the main reason for the drop in results. "It's quite certain that one of the reasons for the setback was the Coronavirus, but we are still near the top in terms of results. The problems caused by the coronavirus must have affected other countries as well," added Nellis.

"Estonia's drop was much smaller than that of other countries, which shows that the Estonian education system was able to adapt really well to the pandemic situation. That is, moving from the physical classroom to the virtual space without losing the ability to teach," said Kristina Kallas.

In figures comparing students in different countries, only those in Singapore, Japan and South Korea outperformed Estonia in mathematics. The average Singaporean student scored 65 points more than the average Estonian 15-year-old in the test. However, Nellis said it should not be forgotten that Estonian pupils remain up there with the world's best in their respective subjects. Estonian pupils also outscored the OECD average scores posted by students in Latvia and Lithuania by more than 30 points.

"In my personal opinion, this time once again our success in comparison to other countries was down to having qualified and mission-focused teaching staff. Unfortunately, the situation at the moment is different. We will only know in the years to come what impact the changes in the teaching profession have on our students' results," said Nellis.

Mean performance in mathematics, reading and science. Source: OECD, PISA 2020 database.

Singapore, Japan, Ireland and South Korea all outperformed Estonia in functional reading. Historically, the last time Estonia's students scored lower than in 2022 was in 2009. According to Kaja Sarapuu, teachers believe that can partly be put down to students' disappearing reading habits. "There is not so much strong support for reading at home - if the parent doesn't read, the child doesn't read and so vocabulary is lost. It is precisely when it comes to functional reading that this is so important for text comprehension," explained Sarapuu.

The reduction in contact hours that resulted from the Coronavirus pandemic may also have had an impact. "There was a lot more written work and so oral communication suffered. If you add to that the fact that you have a stand-in teacher for a year, who just uses whatever is in the workbook as a basis, then the quality of the teaching is completely different," Sarapuu added. Once again, it is worth pointing out that Finnish children scored nearly 20 points lower (than Estonians) in functional reading and Latvian children's cores were over 35 points lower. According to Sarapuu, this illustrates the level of the Estonian education system.

In science, 15-year-olds from Singapore, Japan and South Korea performed better than Estonian children. In 2018, Estonian basic school pupils were among the best in the world. The change appears to be mostly a result of the improvements shown by children in those other three countries.

Although the scores posted by Estonian children only fell by four points, the decline was steeper than the one experienced a decade ago. In 2012, Estonian pupils scored an average of 541 points, compared to 526 this time. Science teachers pointed out that the pool of qualified teachers in this field started to diminish earlier than for math and Estonian.

Kaja Sarapuu urged people not to attribute the poorer PISA results to the pandemic alone. "I hope that the ministry will look a little deeper into these results. I wouldn't put the emphasis on [teachers'] pay , but on the learning space where the student and the teacher are together - how they feel when there is a tired and overworked teacher. It's hard to create the joy of learning when [a teacher] is groaning under the extra tasks you have given them," said Sarapuu.

Kristina Kallas also noted that for Estonian student, life satisfaction and sense of security was above the OECD average. "Most of this sense of security was related to school. Estonian children feel safe, which has a strong impact on their academic performance," said the minister.

Top performers and low-performing students. Source: OECD, PISA 2020 database.

PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) is an international education survey that examines the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in math, science and functional reading. It is administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

The PISA study is carried out every three years. Each survey has one core area, while the other two areas measure students' knowledge to a lesser extent. This year's survey was originally scheduled for 2021, but was postponed by one year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There have been eight PISA tests conducted up to now. Estonia has participated since 2006.

In the spring of 2022, 6,392 students from 196 Estonian schools took the PISA test, which consisted of math, reading, science and creative thinking tasks. This time the focus was on mathematics. In total, 690,000 students from 81 countries or economic regions around the world took the test. The results are published simultaneously in all participating countries.

More information is available here.

This article has been amended.

In our initial publication, we mistakenly included Singapore among the OECD countries. In reality, students from only two OECD countries – Japan and South Korea – achieved better results than Estonian students. Additionally, students from Singapore, an OECD partner country, also outperformed Estonian youth. We regret the error.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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