Why Portugal is performing so well in PISA Scores

Portugal is on the rise in PISA scores and it will pass the Netherlands in the coming few years. The Dutch are losing points, while The Portuguese are gaining them fast. Only one measurement stand out in which the Dutch score dramatically better, and that is the stress students perceive. The schoolwork-related anxiety is nearly on the maximum in Portugal and almost on the minimum for the Dutch. (click on the diagram and scroll all the way down for details).

We have been investigating this during our visit to Portugal and some preliminary conclusions can be drawn.

  1. Portugal measures PISA at 15 years of age (this is the PISA scoring age) and at that age student just finished their primary school period. This means that the maximum amount of teaching time possible is devoted to the teaching of the type of content that PISA is measuring.
  2. The material in the curriculum of the students is on a exceptional high level, and it is the same for all schools in Portugal. This gives schools a very clear opportunity to compare themselves to other schools, which seems to drive up performance. Becoming one of the top schools ensures extra funding, for instance.
  3. The educational system is in place for about two decades now, so the early implementation problems have been ironed out, all the teachers are experienced in using it and students (and their parents) now know what to expect from it. This means the educational system in Portugal, if it would be of high quality, will by now show the benefits of its intended purpose. Hence, the evidence suggests that the system is of high quality and that it is working.
  4. The high stress measured in Portugal may very well be the flip-side of the 15 years of age benefit (conclusion 1): the PISA score is taken in the year that all students are up for the exam that will decide where they will study next. In particular, which type of subject they will be advised to study (science, humanities, etc). So, PISA is measuring the students at a time in which they are very anxious anyway.

All in all, the Portuguese educational system now seems to work as designed. It has drawbacks, just like any system will have, but it works particularly well for the way PISA is measuring school performance.

Why the Dutch are in decline was not under investigation now. That is something to conduct further research on. Which would mean a trip to the Netherlands 😉

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