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Marie-Estelle Pech

PARIS - By now, dissecting the results of the PISA global education report is an annual rite for everyone from local teachers to national politicians. The student results from around the world, compiled each year by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), can be cause for joy and consternation as national education systems are compared and ranked on a number of key criteria.

Finland's education minister Henna Virkkunen declared that she was "worried" that her country dropped to third in the rankings of PISA (International Program of Student Assessment) after sitting atop the rankings in many categories since 2000.

The results were released this week of the study conducted among 470,000 students in 65 countries, examining the abilities of 15-year-old students to use their knowledge and skills to "meet the challenges of the real world." The investigation focused on three primary areas: reading, mathematics and scientific literacy. Reading comprehension was also evaluated, with a series of questions concerning passages on cell phone safety and lines from a play.

Most good news was reserved for Asia, with China, Singapore, Korea and Japan all enjoying good results. Canada and New Zealand also earned high marks. The Chinese province of Shanghai finished with particularly strong results in reading comprehension. More than a quarter of all students from this region also demonstrated a strong ability to solve complex math problems, compared with just 3% average from all OECD countries

Finland may have been unseated this year, but that has more to do with improvements in emerging country performance, rather than any noticeable Finnish decline. Still, as OECD deputy director Bernard Hugonnier points out, Finland "is not a paradise," as the country demonstrated a 70-point gap between performance of native students, and foreign students. 

In fact, all of Europe's results are largely mixed. Sweden and Ireland plunged in the rankings, but Italy, Germany and Portugal all improved their performance. ‘Germany has raised its requirements for recruiting and evaluating teachers," Hugonnier points out. "Its principals have considerable autonomy. It also decided to provide targeted assistance for struggling students."

French worries

France's results, meanwhile, are quite mediocre. With 496 points in reading, the country ranks 21st out of all countries participating in the study. But its 22nd place in mathematics is especially troubling. French students saw their results fall by 14 points between 2003 and 2009. Once classified among the top performing countries, France now falls well within the "average" range.

This "average" ranking hides major problems. If France maintains a relatively respectable global standing, it's because the percentage of its elite students remained strong and increased slightly, while the number of students who failed school increased more noticeably between 2000 and 2009. Registering some of the sharpest disparities in the world, the French education system works well for the best students, but tends to leave the weakest behind. Denmark, by comparison, is also considered "average," in terms of overall academic performance — but few of its students actually fail.

Another negative sign for France: socio-economic discrepancies. In the rest of the sample, differences in social background account for an average of 22% of the variation in student performance. In France, on the other hand, this figure is 28%. "In France, the impact of socio-economic background on student performance is strong," said Sophie Vayssettes, a statistician at the OECD. In contrast, countries or regions like Shanghai, South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Canada are comparatively more equal — meaning students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to do better there, than they are in France. 

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