Finnish students lead in reading literacy, UNESCO reports

1 July 2003 –

In what it bills as “the most comprehensive and rigorous international effort to date” to assess student performance, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported today that 15-year-old Finns are among the world’s best in terms of reading literacy, while students in Japan, Hong Kong-China and the Republic of Korea lead in mathematics and science.

By contrast, students in several Latin American countries lag seriously behind in all three areas, even after taking account of lower national income levels, according to the survey of 15-year-olds in 43 countries published jointly UNESCO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The report, Literacy Skills for the World of Tomorrow, based on data gathered in the context of the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and released in London today, measures how well 15-year-olds are prepared to meet the challenges of today’s knowledge societies, by administering tests and background questionnaires to between 4,500 and 10,000 students in each participating country.

“It is the most comprehensive and rigorous international effort to date to both assess student performance and collect data on the student, family and institutional factors that can help explain differences in performance,” UNESCO says. In this way, it provides policy-makers with a lens through which to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of their education systems.”

The report analyses data collected in 2002 from 15 mainly middle-income countries and economies - Albania, Argentina, Brazil, Bulgaria, Chile, Hong Kong-China, Indonesia, Israel, Latvia, Liechtenstein, FYR Macedonia, Peru, Romania, the Russian Federation and Thailand - with data collected in 2000 from nearly all 30 OECD members and first published in 2001.

OECD countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Republic of Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, the Slovak Republic, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom, the United States.

Among the non-OECD economies, students in Hong Kong-China emerge as star performers, achieving overall scores in reading proficiency equivalent to those of students in the top OECD countries, after Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Ireland. Along with students in Japan and the Republic of Korea, they are also ahead of the rest, on average, in mathematical and scientific literacy.

On the other hand, students in Latin America are well behind. Peru has the largest proportion of students (80 percent) at Level 1 and below, indicating that students are having serious difficulties in using reading as a tool to advance and extend their knowledge and skills in other areas.

Within countries, the performance gap in reading skills between students from rich and poor families was greatest in Argentina, the United States, Chile, Israel, Portugal, Mexico, Peru and Brazil. Higher average spending per student tends to be associated with higher average performance in the three areas of literacy, but does not guarantee it. Italy spends about twice as much per student as the Republic of Korea, but whereas this latter is among the best performing countries in all literacy areas assessed, Italy performs significantly below the OECD average.

Analyzing gender differences in the three learning domains, PISA found that girls generally outperform boys in reading literacy in all countries, while boys tend to score better than girls overall in mathematics, except in Albania. There are fewer differences between the genders in scientific literacy, on the other hand.

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