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Successful PISA stories in the EU: how some Member States have been able to improve their performance over time

Mastering basic skills is a prerequisite for thriving in life, finding a fulfilling job and becoming an engaged citizen. At a micro-level, education plays an important part in determining social participation, well-being and employability; at a macro level, it is associated with higher levels of productivity and social cohesion. The development of the knowledge and technological society and the growing demand for the 21st-century skills in the labour market only increases the importance of education and the acquisition of foundational skills. However, one in five 15-year-olds in the EU fail to complete basic mathematics, science and reading tasks, according to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) (i.e., they do not achieve level 2 knowledge in the PISA assessment). Furthermore, students’ performance has gradually deteriorated over the period from 2009 to 2018. The cost of underperformance in education is rising. The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused school closures and learning disruption, may have further exacerbated educational inequalities, and negatively affected learning achievements in the long term.

In such a context, it is imperative to understand which education reforms and interventions ‘work’ and thus lead to actual improvements in the quality and equity of education and the subsequent academic success of all students, in order to be able to maximise the returns from educational investments planned to support the recovery from the crisis and ensure just, green, and digital transitions, as highlighted by Strategic framework for European cooperation in education and training towards the European Education Area and beyond (2021-2030). To contribute to this understanding, the present study explored which countries have been able to improve their students’ performance – looking at the PISA indicators measuring student achievement and equity – over time; and which factors can be associated with the positive trends observed, as well as which policy reforms may have contributed to these improvements.

Analysis of PISA journeys and the accompanying reform processes in Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, and Sweden demonstrates that policy-makers have made, and are still making, significant attempts in their quest to improve educational outcomes and to address school-level inequalities by implementing various sets of reforms. In general, such reforms target structural changes (such as extending the length of compulsory education, investing in early childhood education, reorganisation of the school network, diversification of educational pathways), the development and assessment of competences (curricular reforms), and the improvement of equity (such as delaying streaming, introducing support networks in schools, priority education policies and preventing grade repetition, as well as addressing school segregation).

Rigorously assessing the extent to which particular reforms and interventions ‘work’ and achieve their intended outcomes proves challenging, however, due to:

  • Lack of an evidence-based education policy tradition in Europe, shaping specificities of reform design (reforms rarely include built-in monitoring and evidence collection mechanisms based on experimental research into the reform process).
  • Limitations of available cross-sectional data on student achievements (most international and national student assessments), analysis of which does not allow causal inferences to be made with regard to specific policy impacts. Consequently, isolating the impact of educational policy reforms on PISA performance through statistical modelling is a challenging undertaking.
  • Limitations around PISA data and measurements, due to changes in the methodologies used, available variables, and the computation process of various indicators between cycles.