Scotland reported record-low results in maths, reading and science in the first set of international student assessments since the pandemic.

Scotland declined by 18 points in maths, 11 points in reading, and seven points in science since the last time the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was administered in 2018. 

The 2022 PISA results make grim reading for many of the 81 participating countries. Set against the global backdrop, Scotland’s results follow an overall trend of decline since the pandemic and raise questions about what lessons we can learn from PISA scores.

What is PISA?

PISA tests measure student attainment in three key subject areas: maths, science and reading. There have been eight PISA tests since 2000, and each year PISA focusses on one specific subject. This year, the focus was maths.

Results are compared across all 81 participating countries. This year, 690,000 students took part, including students from all four UK nations. 

Countries are compared according to their raw performance as well as their position related to the OECD average. 

Importantly, not every student in Scotland takes part in PISA.

The OECD administers PISA to 15-year-olds, as this is the age (globally) at which most children are still enrolled in formal education. Beginning with a sample of at least 150 schools, which is meant to represent urban, rural and other demographic factors, roughly 42 students are selected from each school.

Most countries have between 4,000 and 8,000 students sit PISA tests. The Scottish Government reports that 3,300 students from 117 Scottish schools took part in PISA 2022.

How did Scotland perform on PISA 2022?

Scotland reported a score of 493 in reading, 17 points above the OECD average.

Scotland reported a slightly lower science score of 483. Globally, science was the highest-scoring subject with an OECD average of 485.

And in maths, the worst-performing subject for many countries, Scotland scored 471, one point below the OECD average.

Setting the bar for participants, top-performing Singapore reported scores of 543 in reading, 575 in maths and 561 in science.

According to the OECD analysis of results, this suggests Singaporean students are between three and five school years ahead of their fellow OECD counterparts.

Although Scotland scored near or above the OECD average in the three subjects, this year’s results mark the continuation of a long period of overall decline.

And while Scotland’s 2022 results did not buck this trend, the decline is par for the course.

Only a handful of countries have reported long-term improvement on PISA tests, and these are mostly concentrated at the top of the table.

Results part of a wider context

To fairly analyse PISA scores, it’s important to factor in the context behind the numbers.

Scotland's place alongside other OECD countries and the rest of the UK, and the comparative rates of decline in each, are just as important as the individual scores.

As The Herald reports, not all UK countries have been declining at the same rate. Since 2006, Scotland's reading scores have fallen by 6 points. That's a bigger drop than England's 3 points, but so steep as the 15-point drop in Wales.

During the same period, Scotland's science and maths scores have seen a sharper decline: 32 points in science and 35 in maths. 

Scottish maths scores have declined at more than 10 times the rate of England's. This has dropped Scotland from comfortably above the OECD average to barely scraping past it.

A survey of global results from the first PISA report in the early 2000s shows a steady decline in the overall average, including a sharp dropoff between 2018 and 2022. 

As the OECD report states, PISA scores are not based on national school censuses. They represent students’ performance on a given day and are only administered to a selection of students that meet set demographic and socioeconomic criteria.

While it's true that Scotland’s scores have been on a clear decline since the early 2000s, there are bigger trends at work.

Overall, Scotland has maintained the same steady decline as other countries, while remaining above or very near the OECD average in most subjects.

The PISA report also goes beyond the raw subject scores.

Given that the two most recent PISA results (today’s from 2022 and the previous scores from 2018) represent a snapshot of the pre- and post-pandemic schooling, some of the supplementary survey questions might help to explain how education changed in the intervening years.

Take, for instance, questions asking students how prepared they feel for another round of school closures and remote learning.

On the surface, this might seem a farfetched hypothetical, given how abnormal pandemic learning was and how unlikely we are to see a repeat of the same circumstances.

But the 2022 results are also an indication of the lingering effects of the pandemic. They may provide insight into how effective teaching and learning were during the months of lockdown.

With 41% of PISA participants in 2022 reporting that they were not confident that they would be able to focus on schoolwork without helpful reminders, and 53% not confident they could motivate themselves if schools were to close again, it serves as more than a warning about potential future closures.

It may also indicate issues that are having knock-on effects on student performance. If students aren’t convincingly confident about their ability to work remotely now – after elements of digital learning have found their way into many curriculums – there may have been similar struggles during lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. 

Government highlights impact of pandemic

Responding to the PISA results, Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth cited the COVID-19 pandemic as having a "profound impact" on students across the world.

She also singled out Scotland's decline in maths and reading between 2018 and 2022, and said the government will be working with COSLA to try and reverse the trend.

“Since PISA was conducted, wider evidence from both the 2023 national qualification results and the most recent literacy and numeracy data for primary, show clear evidence of an ongoing recovery which we are determined to build on.

"Our participation in PISA provides valuable information to support educational improvement; that will be further strengthened by our decision earlier this year to re-join the Trends in International Mathematics and Science (TIMS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy (PIRLs) studies.

“I will provide Parliament with a full update next week, reflecting on both PISA and the 2023 national literacy and numeracy data, which is based on teacher judgement."