1. Eastern Europe and Central Asia participation and outcomes in PISA 2018

Countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia1 (EECA) have undergone tremendous social and political changes in the last 30 years. Most have transitioned from centralised and planned societies to market-based ones and economic development, as measured by gross domestic product (GDP) per-capita, has risen overall (World Bank, 2021[1]). Regional growth has been led by Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania, which have also acceded into the European Union. Other countries, such as Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan, have seen less consistent development from year to year, but still show positive economic progress.

Despite the overall economic growth of the region, EECA countries still face several common challenges. In most countries, the level of development is well below those of most OECD countries. Moreover, the increasing prosperity and wealth of the region has not been equally distributed. Economic inequality, as measured by the Gini coefficient, remains particularly high in Georgia and Romania, and is both higher than the OECD average and rising in Bulgaria and Turkey (World Bank, 2021[2]). Finally, good governance is a critical issue in the region and there is a recognised need to build trustworthy and effective systems of government, particularly in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine (EU, 2020[3]).

Education is central to achieving regional development goals, as knowledgeable and skilled populations are important in creating dynamic, sustainable economies and inclusive, participatory societies. EECA countries have a strong educational tradition and have produced students who achieve top marks in international competitions. However, the focus on identifying and developing top performers can also divert attention and resources away from helping all students realise their potential. A higher share of EECA students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, drop out before completing secondary school, and many who stay in school do not master the basic competences needed to lead productive lives (UNICEF, 2017[4]; OECD, 2019[5]). Addressing these challenges will be crucial to the region’s future economic development and social cohesion.

This report uses data from the OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), policy findings from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF)-OECD country reviews and other international research to identify strengths and challenges that are common to EECA education systems, recognising that there is scope for further analysis on issues relevant to specific countries (Box 1.1). This report also compares the outcomes from EECA countries to global benchmarks, which can reveal the unique features of education in the region. This kind of multi-country analysis can help determine regionally relevant practices that can help improve student outcomes, particularly in secondary school.

PISA is a triennial survey (due to the COVID-19 epidemic, PISA will be administered next in 2022) of 15-year-old students around the world. It assesses the extent to which they have acquired the knowledge and skills in reading, mathematics and science that are essential for full participation in social and economic life. PISA does not just assess what students know, but examines how well students can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply their knowledge in real-life settings.

In addition to benchmarking performance, PISA also collects a diverse array of information about students’ families and their socio-economic background, which can be used to better understand the educational equity of countries. Since 2000 when two countries from the region took PISA, EECA countries have continuously increased their engagement and ten participated in 2018 (Table 1.1). Kyrgyzstan also participated in 2006 and 2009, while Mongolia and Uzbekistan are expected to participate in PISA 2022.

In 2018 the PISA assessment was computer-based in most countries (the transition to the computer-based assessment started in 2015), but was still paper-based in 9 out of 79 PISA-participating countries and economies, including Moldova, Romania and Ukraine (Table 1.2). Data between the two modes are comparable, but the paper-based assessment does not include interactive and adaptive items (OECD, 2019[5]).

All countries and economies in PISA 2018 distributed the student and school questionnaires and some participants also administered optional background questionnaires. These included questionnaires for students (about their educational careers, information and communication technology (ICT) familiarity, well-being and financial literacy), parents and teachers. Table 1.2 shows the optional questionnaires taken by EECA countries.

UNICEF and the OECD have regularly studied education in the EECA region. Since 2006, the UNICEF Europe and Central Asia Regional Office has conducted analysis of PISA results for several countries in the region. UNICEF and the OECD have recently completed education policy reviews on schooling for Romania (2017), Turkey (2019) and Georgia (2019). The OECD has also conducted reviews in Kazakhstan (2020, 2015 and 2014) and Ukraine (2017). These studies focused on policies related to evaluation and assessment, school resources, skills development, vocational education and integrity. In 2020, UNICEF and the OECD also developed a report based on PISA data for countries in the Western Balkans region. The knowledge base and analytical frameworks built by these activities greatly inform and shape this report.

In each participating country, PISA 2018 assessed a representative sample of children between the ages of 15 years and 3 months and 16 years and 2 months who were enrolled in an educational institution at Grade 7 or above. A two-stage sampling procedure selected a sample of at least 150 schools and roughly 42 students within each of those schools. The majority of countries assessed between 5 000 and 7 000 students. Kazakhstan tested roughly 20 000 students in order to produce representative results for each region. The national context of each country that participates in PISA affects greatly the students who are sampled to participate in the survey. This section discusses some of the key contextual features of EECA countries, and how these contexts are represented in their PISA 2018 student samples.

An important concern for all countries is how students from disadvantaged backgrounds perform compared to their advantaged peers, which helps indicate the extent to which the school system helps students overcome socio-economic inequalities. While there is variation between countries, EECA countries are, on average, lower income than those in the OECD. EECA countries had an average GDP per-capita of USD 20 839 (United States dollars) purchasing power parity (PPP) in 2018, compared to the OECD average of USD 44 994 (Table 1.3).

While wealth is an important measure of socio-economic status, other factors also influence a student’s level of advantage. In PISA, a student’s background is represented through the index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS), which is created based upon information about a student’s home environment, parents’ level of education and parents’ employment. This index is calculated such that the OECD average is 0.0 and one standard deviation is 1.0. The average ESCS across EECA countries is -0.4. However, there are disparities within the region. Belarus has an ESCS of 0.1, while Turkey has an average ESCS of -1.1. Since socio-economic context and student performance are closely related, it is important to consider these data when interpreting and comparing the educational outcomes of EECA countries.

The EECA region is vast and includes a variety of communities from small, rural villages to large, urban cities. On average, the share of students who attend school in rural communities (defined as having populations of 3 000 people or fewer) is relatively larger across the EECA region (15% compared to 9% across the OECD), but some countries have considerably higher shares. In fact, Moldova (47%), Georgia and Kazakhstan (both 30%) are three of the four most rural countries that participate in PISA. Research has shown that rural schools can face several challenges, ranging from infrastructure to human resources (Echazarra and Radinger, 2019[7]). Where relevant (and focusing on countries with large shares of students who attend schools in rural areas), this report will explore how school location can shape student learning outcomes.

As PISA only assesses students attending an education institution, the learning outcomes of 15-year-olds who are out of school are not captured in PISA data. The share of the total population of 15-year-olds in a country that is eligible to participate in PISA is known as the coverage index. In some EECA countries, the general age at which compulsory education ends is 15 or earlier (Table 1.5). In these countries, some students might already have left school when PISA is administered, which can lower the countries’ coverage indices. Other factors, such as a high rate of dropout or grade repetition, can also affect a country’s coverage index.

Across EECA countries, the coverage index is slightly lower than the OECD average (80% compared to 88%) (Table 1.5). Disparities at the country-level are quite wide. While Kazakhstan and Moldova have coverage indices above 90%, Baku (Azerbaijan) has a coverage index of 46%, which is the lowest among all PISA-participating countries and reflects the relatively low leaving age. Readers of this report should interpret PISA results in light of these differences in coverage.

In some countries, 15-year-old students are transitioning from lower secondary to upper secondary education, which means that PISA participants in those countries are often from both these levels of education. In EECA countries, more students are in upper secondary education when they take PISA compared to the OECD average (76% vs 52%). Nevertheless, less than 62% of students in Baku (Azerbaijan), Belarus and Kazakhstan were in upper secondary education, and less than 10% of students in Moldova were. Which level students are in when they take PISA could affect their results. As mentioned previously, in many EECA countries compulsory education ends before upper secondary education, and thus upper secondary students may be a more self-selective group.

Many countries divide students into different types of educational pathways, or tracks. Among these pathways, the two most common are general education, which typically prepares students for academic tertiary studies, and vocational education, which equips students with practical skills to enter the workforce (in most countries vocational students can also enter tertiary education). Internationally, countries vary in terms of when students are selected into different tracks. While some systems, such as Austria, start sorting students after primary education, the majority start offering distinct tracks to students at the beginning of upper secondary school.

In the EECA region, 28% of upper secondary students are enrolled in a vocational pathway (compared to 21% across the OECD) but the size and nature of vocational sectors varies greatly across countries. Although in Baku (Azerbaijan), Georgia and Moldova have almost no students in vocational pathways, 49% of students in Bulgaria and 68% of students in Croatia are enrolled in vocational pathways at the upper secondary level. In Kazakhstan, a sizeable vocational sector operates, but is considered largely separate from the upper secondary education system and is often classified at ISCED 4 and 5 levels. A distinguishing feature of EECA education systems is that many select students into specific programmes within pathways (e.g., general education schools that specialise in mathematics). Chapter 2 of this report explores issues around student grouping and segregation in greater depth.

PISA results show that student outcomes in some EECA countries have improved over time. In Moldova and Turkey, student outcomes in reading have improved between the first year the countries participated and 2018. These countries have also increased their coverage indices, showing that gains in educational access and learning outcomes are not mutually exclusive (Table 1.6) (also see Box 1.3 for a discussion on how rising coverage indices might be reflected in different countries).

In other countries, student outcomes in reading have not changed between the first year they participated in PISA and 2018. From cycle to cycle, however, some differences can be observed. Georgia, for instance, improved in reading from an average of 374 score points in 2009 to 401 in 2015, before declining to 380 in 2018. On the other hand, outcomes in Bulgaria decreased from 430 on average in 2000 to 402 in 2006, before increasing in subsequent years2.

Though results in the region are generally improving, overall outcomes in the EECA region are still lower than international benchmarks (Figure 1.1). All countries in the region performed below the OECD average in reading, mathematics and science, though there is considerable variation. Students in Belarus and Croatia perform similarly to OECD countries such as Italy and Latvia. Meanwhile, Georgia and Kazakhstan perform similarly to lower-middle income countries like Panama and Thailand.

As mentioned previously, one should interpret PISA results in light of participants’ economic development, as 44% of performance differences in mean reading scores between countries in PISA 2018 can be accounted for by national income (OECD, 2019[5]). Figure 1.2 shows the performance of education systems relative to their per-capita GDP. In general, education systems in the EECA region perform around what would be predicted by their levels of economic development. However, some countries perform higher relative to others with similar income levels. Ukraine for example, performs better than several wealthier countries, which indicates the potential for policy to help overcome resource limitations.

To help understand differences in student knowledge and skills, PISA categorises student performance into different proficiency levels. These levels in reading, which was the main assessment domain in PISA 2018, range from the highest (Level 6) to the lowest (Level 1c) proficiency (Table 1.7). Level 2 is considered the minimum level of proficiency students need to acquire to advance in their education and participate in modern societies.

Figure 1.3 shows that on average in the EECA countries, 42% of 15-year-old students did not attain the baseline proficiency level in reading (vs. 23% in the OECD). These students cannot identify the main idea of a text of moderate length, find information based on explicit, but sometimes complex, criteria, and reflect on the purpose and form of texts when explicitly directed to do so. However, there are large differences between countries in the region: Belarus, Croatia, Turkey and Ukraine were close to the OECD average, with about one student in four not reaching this baseline level. On the other hand, in Baku (Azerbaijan), Georgia and Kazakhstan, more than 60% of students do not reach this level.

In addition to overall performance, PISA measures the outcomes of different student groups within an education system. This type of disaggregation helps policy makers understand if all students are achieving similar outcomes, or if some students are performing very well while others are falling behind. This report concentrates primarily on equity according to students’ socio-economic status, gender and, where relevant, school location (in a rural or urban area), which are important issues in the EECA region.

Figure 1.5 shows that, when looking across all PISA-participating economies, there is a strong, positive relationship between overall performance and variation in performance, likely owing to the wider range of possible student outcomes in higher performing countries. As EECA countries typically have lower performance compared to the OECD average, disparities between student groups in EECA countries might be smaller in absolute terms, but that does not mean these gaps are less meaningful. Readers should keep this information in mind as they interpret the PISA results. Where appropriate, this report will also report results in terms of country-level standard deviations to help contextualise comparison.

Socio-economically advantaged students3 perform better on PISA than disadvantaged students in all PISA-participating countries and economies. On average across EECA countries, socio-economically advantaged students score 80 points more than socio-economically disadvantaged students (the gap across OECD countries is 89). Such gaps are highest in Romania (109) and Bulgaria (106), and lowest in Baku (Azerbaijan) (41) and Kazakhstan (40).

PISA results consistently show that girls tend to outperform boys by about 30 points in reading. In mathematics, boys outperform girls by roughly 5 points, and differences in science are not significant on average. In EECA countries, girls outperform boys by 32 points on average in reading in PISA 2018, which is similar to the difference across the OECD (30 points on average). Like OECD countries, there is considerable variation across countries. Six EECA countries have gender gaps greater than the OECD average, with the highest in Moldova and Bulgaria (40 score points). However, in terms of standard deviations, eight out of ten EECA countries have a larger gap than the OECD average.

Performance differences according to gender have decreased over time. Six out of eight countries in the region have reduced their gender gaps between their first years of participation and 2018 (Figure 1.8). These decreases were often because boys increased in performance while girls decreased, which was the case in Croatia, Georgia and Kazakhstan. In Bulgaria, both boys and girls decreased in performance, but girls decreased more than boys.

In most PISA-participating countries and economies, students enrolled in urban areas have higher performance than students in rural schools (OECD, 2019[9]).Among EECA countries where more than 3% of 15-year-old students were enrolled in rural schools, the urban-rural gaps in Moldova (89 points) and Romania (110 points) are considerably larger than the same gap across the OECD (35 points) (Figure 1.9). In terms of standard deviations, Kazakhstan’s gap (0.55 standard deviations) is also larger than that of the OECD (0.51 standard deviations). After accounting for student and school socio-economic status, the relationship between geography and performance weakens but remains statistically significant in Georgia, Kazakhstan and Moldova.

Like in OECD countries, reading performance in EECA also varies according to education tracks, and gaps in three EECA countries are as large or larger than the OECD average (Figure 1.10). In terms of standard deviations, however, five EECA countries have gaps as large or larger than the OECD average, with only Kazakhstan and Ukraine having smaller differences. The observed gap in learning achievement between general and vocational pathways reflects not only a difference in curriculum but also a difference in student intake. Boys and socio-economically disadvantaged students are more likely to be enrolled in vocational programmes in all EECA countries where such tracks are offered (see Figure 1.11). These data suggest that student grouping and tracking in EECA countries reflect educational inequities at lower levels of education, and, without careful interventions, could risk exacerbating them.


[7] Echazarra, A. and T. Radinger (2019), “Learning in rural schools: Insights from PISA, TALIS and the literature”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 196, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/8b1a5cb9-en.

[3] EU (2020), Partnership for Good Governance, https://pjp-eu.coe.int/en/web/pgg2/home (accessed on 16 March 2021).

[5] OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/5f07c754-en.

[9] OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume II): Where All Students Can Succeed, PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://dx.doi.org/10.1787/b5fd1b8f-en.

[6] The World Bank (n.d.), GDP per capita (current US$) | Data, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=XK-AL-ME-MK-RS&view=chart (accessed on 1 February 2019).

[8] UNESCO-UIS (2021), UIS dataset, http://data.uis.unesco.org/ (accessed on 4 July 2018).

[4] UNICEF (2017), Improving Education Participation: Policy and Practice Pointers for Enrolling All Children and Adolescents in School and Preventing Dropout, https://www.unicef.org/eca/media/2971/file/Improving_education_participation_report.pdf (accessed on 17 December 2020).

[1] World Bank (2021), GDP Per Capita, PPP, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.CD (accessed on 11 January 2020).

[2] World Bank (2021), Gini index (World Bank estimate), https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI? (accessed on 16 March 2021).


← 1. This report focuses on PISA-participating countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia that are supported by the UNICEF ECARO office. The ten countries from this region that participated in PISA 2018 are Azerbaijan (only the city of Baku participated in PISA 2018), Belarus, Bulgaria, Croatia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine.

← 2. PISA scores do not have a substantive meaning but are set in relation to the variation in results observed across all test participants. The results are scaled to fit approximately normal distributions, with means around 500 score points and standard deviations around 100 score points. The metric for each scale was set when it was first developed as a major domain. The mean reading score for the 28 OECD member countries at the time was set at 500 score points, with a standard deviation of 100 points, in PISA 2000; the OECD mean mathematics score was set at 500 in PISA 2003; and the OECD mean science score was set at 500 in PISA 2006.

← 3. PISA measures a student’s socio-economic status through responses on the student questionnaire in three areas—parents’ level of education, parents’ employment and household possessions.

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