PISA test results reveal educational challenges in Latin America

Study highlights the urgency of implementing measures to improve basic education systems
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690,000 adolescents from 81 countries participated in this edition.

The PISA test results reveal the educational challenges in Latin America and the urgency of improving our basic education systems. These results, released in December last year, come from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The test, administered after the COVID-19 pandemic, evaluated whether 15-year-old students, including those from 14 Latin American and Caribbean nations nearing the end of basic education, can apply their knowledge in real-life situations.

A total of 690,000 adolescents from 81 countries and economies, including OECD members, participated. The results assess the level of competence in mathematics, reading, and science among adolescents in the region, as well as students’ perceptions of education, their learning experience during the pandemic, and the availability of resources in educational centers for enriching learning.

The PISA survey reveals that 24 countries exceed the OECD average in mathematics, with Singapore ranking the highest with 575 points. The best-performing countries are mostly Asian and European, with Canada representing the Americas and New Zealand and Australia representing Oceania. In contrast, the lowest scores in mathematics were from the Dominican Republic with 339 points, Paraguay with 338, and Cambodia with 336.

Simultaneously, academic performance declined in other parts of the world, causing “an unprecedented drop” in overall results, a “worrisome trend” according to the report. Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Poland, for instance, recorded notably lower results in mathematics.

Countries have invested in education over the last ten years, but perhaps they did not invest efficiently or sufficiently in the quality of teaching

Eric Charbonnier - Education Analyst

The OECD, responsible for PISA, notes a marked decline in reading, mathematics, and science skills in its latest tests, attributing this to the disruptive impact of the pandemic on global education systems. Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education at the OECD, expresses concern over the significant deterioration and underscores the urgent need to address educational gaps. He highlights the importance of implementing comprehensive measures to tackle inequalities, support lagging students, and strengthen educational resilience.

An analysis by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) highlights the correlation between educational investment and outcomes, pointing out differences between OECD countries and those in the region. This work emphasizes the need to evaluate the effectiveness of investment in improving the education system.

Additionally, the PISA results confirm a high level of inequity in learning, with a higher percentage of poor students showing low performance compared to wealthier students.

What Does the PISA Test Measure?

The PISA test, administered since 1998 on a triennial basis, targets a representative sample of students around the age of 15 who are about to complete secondary education. This sample, consisting of 4,500 to 10,000 students per country, participates in a two-hour exam that evaluates various levels of understanding, judgment, discernment, problem-solving, and creativity in three main areas: reading, mathematics, and general sciences.

In addition to the exam, there is a comprehensive questionnaire that collects relevant information about the students' family and socioeconomic backgrounds, their attitudes toward learning, and their study habits.

The questions on the test are selected unanimously by the participating countries and an international advisory committee. Before inclusion, the questions undergo preliminary testing, and those found to be too easy or too difficult are excluded. Each PISA exam contains enough material for seven hours of assessment, from which a unique combination is extracted for each student during the two-hour exam.

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The results of Latin American countries in the PISA 2022 test show different trends and challenges in the region's education sector. Below is an analysis of the results obtained by each country:

Argentina: Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, Argentina manages to remain stable in mathematics, reading, and science, with slight fluctuations in scores. There is a noticeable reduction in the educational gap, especially among the most disadvantaged students.

Brazil: Shows a trend of stagnation with stable but below-peak results. Most students face difficulties in all three areas evaluated, with a notable decline among wealthier students.

Chile: Stands out as the regional leader in all areas, although it faces stagnation in reading after a period of steady growth. Despite this, performance problems are less prevalent compared to other countries in the region.

Colombia: Shows overall maintenance in performance despite score fluctuations. Significant challenges persist, especially in mathematics and reading.

Costa Rica and Mexico: Experience significant declines in mathematics, while reading and science remain stable or show slight decreases. There is a concerning gap between wealthier students and the national average.

Panama: In its second participation in PISA, Panama shows notable improvements in reading and science, though it remains stable in mathematics.

Peru: Exhibits a positive trend interrupted by a decline in mathematics, while remaining stable in reading and science. Challenges in student performance persist.

Dominican Republic: Despite having the highest proportion of low-performing students, it shows improvements in all evaluated areas compared to previous years.

Uruguay: Faces a decline in mathematics but remains stable in reading and shows improvements in science.

Education as a Factor for Generating Opportunities

Experts like Mercedes Mateo Diaz, head of the Education Division at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), emphasize the importance of creating equitable opportunities to close the inequality gap:

Education is the opportunity generator to solve the problem of inequality.

Mercedes Mateo Diaz - Head of the Education Division at the Inter-American Development Bank

Similarly, Jaime Saavedra, Director of Human Development for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank, comments on the joint report “Learning Cannot Wait” by the Inter-American Development Bank and The World Bank: “The PISA 2022 results in Latin America and the Caribbean should greatly concern us and are a warning about how we should continue investing in education. There is hope; we know what needs to be done to improve. What is needed is to expand the political commitment of all countries to improve the quality of Education.”

Study findings

    • 15-year-olds in Latin America face an educational crisis and significant socioeconomic disparities.
    • On average, 75% struggle with mathematics and 55% with reading.
    • 88% of vulnerable students perform poorly in mathematics.
    • Gender gaps vary, with boys lagging behind in reading.

    These results indicate a worrying impact on future productivity and development.

    • There is a significant disparity in educational outcomes between students from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and those from Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).
    • Except for Chile in reading, all LAC countries perform worse than OECD countries.
    • The gap in mathematics is equivalent to five years of education between a student from LAC and one from the OECD.
    • Learning outcomes show stagnation or even deterioration in many countries, especially in mathematics according to the PISA 2022 tests.
    • There is an increase in low performance, necessitating specific interventions for learning recovery and acceleration.

    In Latin America, except for Peru, the proportion of students with minimum competence levels in mathematics has remained constant or increased over the last 13 years.

  • Conclusions

    What steps should we take to improve and balance educational outcomes for adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean?

    Governments in the region should prioritize reducing the prevalence of low achievement in areas such as math, reading, and science.

    It is imperative to implement immediate measures to ensure that all students acquire basic skills in key areas such as math, reading and science, in line with Sustainable Development Goal 4.1. Governments in the region should prioritize the reduction of low achievement, especially in mathematics where unfavorable trends are observed, particularly among females. Interventions at the secondary level should focus on remedying deficiencies and accelerated acquisition of math skills. Appropriate teaching and tutoring, possibly supported by technological tools, can be effective. It is crucial to strengthen reading and science outcomes, closing gaps to ensure students' full participation in society.

    Provide low-income students with more flexible learning opportunities, access to digital resources and psychosocial support.

    Certain groups of students require specific supports to improve their academic performance. In most countries in the region, low-income students are more likely to be underperforming, a trend that has remained constant or, in some cases, worsened over the last decade. Providing these students with more flexible learning opportunities, access to digital resources and psychosocial support can be beneficial. Similarly, results showing gender disparities in academic achievement, such as the relative underperformance of females in math and males in reading, underscore the need to implement specific actions to close these gaps. These actions could include revising curricular materials to eliminate gender stereotypes, providing educational materials that engage students of both sexes, and offering gender-sensitive teacher training, along with interventions that challenge entrenched gender norms and promote equitable role models.

    Investing in reading and mathematics learning recovery for elementary school students is essential

    Third, it is essential to invest in the recovery of learning in reading and mathematics for primary school students, who were particularly affected by the educational disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that these students were at crucial stages of acquiring basic literacy skills at the time of school closures, interventions to recover learning losses and accelerate their educational progress need to be implemented to improve both academic achievement and equity in the region in future PISA assessments.

    Working on reducing dropout and grade repetition rates

    Fourth, work must be done to reduce dropout and grade repetition rates. Although progress has been made in expanding PISA coverage in the region by reducing early school dropout and supporting grade progression, coverage still falls short of OECD levels in many countries. It is crucial to ensure that all 15-year-olds are represented in PISA, which implies that they attend school at the appropriate grade level. Policies should focus on male students, who are more likely to drop out of school early or not be promoted to the next grade. The implementation of early warning systems, which have proven effective in some contexts, can help identify at-risk students and provide them with the necessary support.

    It is essential to close the gaps in access to digital devices and resources.

    Fifth, it is necessary to close the gaps in access to digital devices and resources, as well as in the preparation of teachers to effectively integrate technology into their teaching. Principals in public and low-income schools report a significant lack of access to digital resources and devices compared to private and wealthier schools. Therefore, it is essential to ensure that all students in the region have equitable access to these tools, both inside and outside the school environment, to facilitate their learning and academic development.

    Finally, it is crucial to allocate adequate resources and use them effectively in education. Although OECD countries invest considerably more per student than LAC countries throughout their educational trajectory, academic performance in mathematics in LAC countries remains lower than the level of investment would suggest. Therefore, in addition to increasing investment in education, it is necessary to ensure that these resources are used efficiently and effectively to improve the quality of education and close achievement gaps in the region.

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