Student performance and equity in education

The education system is responsible for equipping individuals with the knowledge, skills and tools needed for their life-long development. Quality of education can be assessed by how effectively students incorporate the skills they need to thrive in society. The best-performing education systems across the OECD combine both quality and equity. Equity in this context means that personal circumstances are not an obstacle to achieving educational potential, and that all individuals reach at least a minimum level (OECD, 2012).

In 2018, students across the OECD reached an average of 487 points in reading in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), with students in Estonia (523 points), Canada, Finland (520 each) and Ireland (518 points) achieving the highest scores, and those in Colombia (412 points), Mexico (420 points) and Chile (452 points) the lowest (Figure 14.24). Students in Turkey showed the most improvement, scoring 37 points more than in 2015 (OECD, 2019).

However, these averages hide inequalities between students. On average across the OECD, 12% of the variance in performance can be attributed to students’ socio-economic status. The influence of socio-economic background on performance is greater in Hungary (19%) and Luxembourg (18%) and, outside the OECD, in Romania (18%). In contrast, in top-performing Estonia (6%) and Canada (7%), as well as in Iceland (7%), socio-economic background plays a much less significant role (Figure 14.24).

In an increasingly complex context, students need to acquire competences that will allow them to navigate and thrive in an interconnected and changing world. PISA assessed students’ global competence, which encompasses their ability to examine relevant local, global and cultural issues; understand others’ worldviews; engage in open intercultural interactions; and take action for collective well-being and sustainable development.

Cognitive adaptability refers to students’ ability to deal with new situations. During the COVID-19 crisis, students were forced to switch to remote learning, and many found themselves confined at home for long periods. In 2018, students in Spain (0.3 standard deviations from the OECD mean), Mexico and Turkey (0.2 sd each) reported a greater ability than the OECD average to deal with unusual situations and overcome difficulties, while students in Italy, Greece and the Slovak Republic (-0.3 sd each) reported more difficulties in doing so (Figure 14.25).

Being able to understand the reasons behind phenomena including climate change, refugee crises and pandemics, and engage in productive debate about them, is another relevant global competence. The PISA index of self-efficacy regarding global issues assesses students’ ability to perform these tasks. In 2018, students in Germany, Korea and Colombia (0.2 sd away from the OECD mean) reported the highest self-efficacy, while students in the Slovak Republic (-0.4 sd), Scotland and Italy (-0.2 sd) reported the lowest (Figure 14.27).

Further reading

OECD (2020), PISA 2018 Results (Volume VI): Are Students Ready to Thrive in an Interconnected World?, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2012), Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools, OECD Publishing, Paris,

Figure notes

14.24. Data for Spainare not available. Data for China cover Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang only.

14.25 and 14.26. Data for Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the United States are not available.

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