In addition to testing students' skills, the PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) test also provides valuable information that can be used to address gaps in the education system.
Estonian school students once again placed among the best in both Europe and the world in the latest PISA test. One of the main myths associated with the PISA test is that it tests their prior knowledge. In reality it assesses students' ability to understand texts and use the knowledge that they have acquired to complete certain tasks.
"In the PISA test, there is a help button which you can click to see all the formulas. The idea is that you don't have to memorize them, but if you are in this situation, then, which one do you choose and how do you use it? /.../ This exercise is to show whether or not we can cope, or the children can cope, in their own real-life situations," explained Gunda Tire, Estonia's PISA coordinator.
The students who took the test last year recalled that it was not really their knowledge that was tested per se, but rather their understanding of the text and ability to apply the information at hand.
"I remember that the tasks were quite logical and simple, and not particularly difficult. I think I got through it pretty quickly," said Tanel, one of the students who took the test.
"There were quite a lot of tasks, it took two hours. They were more like logic-based tasks, for example, in math they didn't ask for any specific formulas, but just [to complete] logic tasks instead. And in reading, it was more about functional reading skills," explained Alexandra, who also sat the test.
Estonia's young people expressed both happiness and pride that Estonia had once again managed to attain such strong results. Alexander, who is a dual English and Russian native speaker, was also surprised, as he thought that more effort would be needed to achieve such a good outcome.
"In a way I'm even surprised that we [are] so high, I would have thought maybe we would be lower. I don't feel that it's particularly difficult at school, but we learn a lot here and the Estonian people are very good and smart for getting such a good result," Alexander said.
Although the main focus of the PISA test this time round was on mathematics, each task also involved functional reading skills, which are developed throughout the schooling process. For students, that means understanding texts and then making connections and drawing conclusions from the things they have read.
"The teacher and the pupil study [the material together], they understand and they discuss it, then the pupil explains it in their own words - that's what functional literacy is all about. Where the difficulty perhaps comes from is that often children nowadays simply cannot understand what the task is or what the question is," said Irene Artma, who teaches Estonian language and literature.
The PISA test does not only assess students' skills, it also collects a broad range of background data on their studying habits. For example, Estonian students spend an average of 58 hours a week using smart devices, of which 63 percent, or 37 hours, are spent on entertainment.
"The magic and pain of smart devices. The pain is definitely that you can't concentrate on it. You read and if you don't get it in the first moment, you're already at the end of your tether, or you're responding before you've had a chance to think about what it means," said Artma.
Even though Estonia has been near the top of the PISA rankings for 17 years, the proportion of students who can no longer cope with some of the more basic skills is slowly rising. The last few tests have shown a general downward trend for both math and reading. Over-reliance on teaching methods that emphasize pupils' need to discover how to perform tasks by themselves may be partly responsible for this trend.
"In math, the role of the teacher needs to be a bit bigger. We see that children can't cope if they have to discover everything themselves. And that's why these foundations are a big part of what a teacher should be able to do. Maybe it's not so early to start discovering it by themselves," said Gunda Tire.
The results also revealed that while bullying has decreased somewhat, students' feelings of unhappiness with school have risen.
"Our students don't feel as supported by teachers at school as students in other countries do. Maybe this is something we should think about in the future, because it is also an important aspect of students' happiness at school - how they feel at school," explained Karin Täht, associate professor of psychometrics and mathematics education at the University of Tartu.
The logical reason behind this, Täht explained, is that if teachers are not happy with their working conditions, then the students also suffer.
Experts stress that the focus should not be so much on the PISA rankings themselves, but instead on trying to remedy the apparent shortcomings. It could also be worth taking the lead from what successful schools in one county or another are doing very well, as it was not those in Tallinn or Tartu, who achieved the best results, but in fact, on Hiiumaa.
"They certainly have good teachers. I can't explain it any other way. The children of Hiiumaa are extremely good, they are the best in the world in science, and so, you could go to Hiiumaa and see how they are achieving that," said Tire.
According to the latest PISA test, Estonia ranked high in all three of the areas assessed. In math, Estonia's schoolchildren are fourth in the world, and the best in Europe. ranked fourth. In functional reading, Irish pupils proved the strongest in Europe. In science, however, Estonia's students were once again the continent's best.
One thing that provides food for thought, is that globally, PISA test scores have fallen almost everywhere in recent years. The impact of the pandemic on education has been cited as one of the main reasons for this decline, however the downward trend actually began before that. Therefore, the PISA report concludes that there must be some structural reasons behind the overall decline. Estonian Minister of Education Kristina Kallas (Eesti 200) said one factor could be the impact of digital technology.
In line with this, the use of digital equipment was a particular focus on this occasion. It turns out for example, that up to an hour of using a digital device at school leads to an improvement in the average math test result. However, additional hours on top of that tend to bring results down.
Estonian students use digital devices for studying for around 21 hours a week, which is close to the OECD average. However, they also use those same devices for entertainment 36.8 hours a week, which is well above the average. Nearly 30 percent of Estonian students also said digital devices often distract them during math lessons. It was those students in particular, who also tended to score slightly lower on the test.
Editor: Michael Cole