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German Students Perform Poorly on the OECD’s PISA Test (2002)

Gymnasium principal Dieter Smolka reports on German students’ disappointing performance on the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test in 2000. Then he outlines his recommendations for a comprehensive reform of the education system.

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The PISA Study: Consequences and Recommendations for Education Policy and School Practice


The PISA study relegated the German Bildungsnation (i.e., education nation) to the back rows and shattered the self-image of our education system. In the debate that has raged since, people have sought ways out of the education crisis and have given focused consideration to the need to reform our school system. The PISA study and its supplementary domestic study (PISA-E) provide the basis and the impetus for change and innovation in education policy and school practice, something that – measured against the international performance standard – all German federal states need.

In addition to state-by-state [i.e., Land] comparisons of basic reading, math, and science skills, and of college-preparatory high schools [Gymnasien], both studies also include additional information on the relationship between social background and educational success, the influence of social inequalities on school attendance, the status of students from immigrant families, and the institutional conditions for school learning.

In terms of student performance, the discrepancy between the strongest and the weakest federal states proved to be substantial. Bavaria exceeded the OECD average in reading competency, but it was still no match for the top scorers from other countries. So the best federal state in this area was merely first in the “second division.”

The poor overall results of the German Bildungsnation make it necessary to ask “why a country with Germany’s economic and political significance and rich cultural tradition cannot keep pace with the top performers internationally.” Surely, children in Germany are no slower or less willing to learn than Finnish, Swedish, or Canadian schoolchildren.

I. The PISA Study

1. Goals of PISA

PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) aims to provide the governments of participating countries with regular indicators to facilitate administrative policy decisions that will improve their respective national education systems. Here, administrative policy decision-making is interpreted in a broad sense. It encompasses all levels of the education system, and also the development of individual schools as well as all support systems, from teacher training to school counseling. The indicators gauge reading competency, basic mathematical and scientific literacy, and cross-disciplinary competencies. The study focuses on fifteen-year-old high schools students, that is, students young enough to still be subject to compulsory schooling in almost all OECD member states.

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