Singapore students rank top in maths, science and reading in OECD study

The study, which is done every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, was delayed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sandra Davie

Sandra Davie

The Straits Times


Singapore students who took part in Pisa 2022 maintained their performance in mathematics and improved substantially in science. PHOTO: THE STRAITS TIMES

December 6, 2023

SINGAPORE – Fifteen-year-olds here have emerged top performers in an international benchmarking study to measure how well students use their knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems.

Based on the performance of 6,606 students from 149 secondary schools and 15 private schools, including international schools and madrasahs, Singapore was ranked No. 1 for mathematics, science and reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) 2022.

The study, which is done every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), was delayed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the last Pisa study in 2018, Singapore was ranked second after China, which did not participate in the latest study because its schools were closed when the study was being conducted.

Compared with 2018, Singapore students who took part in Pisa 2022 maintained their performance in mathematics and improved substantially in science, but their performance declined slightly in reading.

The Education Ministry said the decline in reading for Singapore students is similar to that of their peers in many other countries and may reflect the impact of a global change in reading habits.

The latest Pisa cycle also showed that Singapore continued to have high proportions of students who did well.

In reading, for instance, 23 per cent of students in Singapore were top performers. For mathematics and science, the figures were 41 per cent and 24 per cent respectively. Top performers achieve proficiency of level five and six.

Similarly, Singapore had fewer students who were low performers in reading at 11 per cent and in mathematics and science at 8 per cent. Such students achieve proficiency below level two.

MOE said in a press release that the Pisa 2022 results, taken together with the results of another international benchmarking study, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls), affirm the resilience of Singapore’s education system.

In the Pirls study released in May, Primary 4 pupils in Singapore emerged as the top readers in the world.

MOE paid tribute to teachers here and said the results reflect the dedicated efforts of schools and teachers in supporting the learning and well-being of students throughout the pandemic.

Noting that Pisa tests students’ ability to apply what they have learnt to unfamiliar settings and real-world contexts, MOE said: “Singapore students have shown that they are good in mathematical reasoning, can distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information, and use computational thinking (for example, pattern recognition, defining algorithms) as they solve complex problems in a variety of modern contexts.”

These are critical skills that will prepare students well for global changes like digitalisation, the emergence of new technologies and the advent of new professions.

MOE also said “Singapore students continue strong performance despite Covid-19 disruptions, including those from lower socio-economic status homes”, based on figures that showed students from disadvantaged homes did better than the OECD average in all three domains tested.

The Pisa 2022 survey highlighted a few problem spots for Singapore students.

One was their perception of a lack of support from their parents, and another was the lack of physical activity among them, with 29 per cent reporting that they do not exercise at all after school.

Commenting on the results, Education Minister Chan Chun Sing said on his Instagram page: “Great job to our students for persevering with their learning despite disruptions caused by the pandemic.

“My deepest gratitude to our educators too, who adapted quickly when learning pivoted online, and came up with many innovative teaching methods to ensure that learning continued.”

He added: “We will not rest on our laurels and continue to work closely with schools, parents and partners to support our students in their education journey.

“Let us always strive to surpass ourselves, rather than focusing on outperforming others.”

Dr Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills and special adviser on education policy to OECD’s secretary-general, praised Singapore for continuing to lead the global league tables in Pisa.

“It has been one of the few countries that saw no negative effects on learning outcomes during the pandemic,” he said, adding that there are many factors at play, including the consistent and high expectations on students and an instructional system that provides rigour in terms of cognitive demand and focus.

He said another factor is the push to teach fewer things in greater depth, and coherence – in terms of modelling learning progressions carefully, for example, in Singapore mathematics.

Noting some areas of concern, he said: “Social disparities in learning outcomes remain clearly visible in Singapore. Also, in terms of students’ sense of belonging, Singapore is more an average rather than a high performer.

“Not least, we have seen a decline in parental support and engagement in Singapore, an area in which Singapore used to be strong.”

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