PISA, not the tower but educational testing

Hungarians are very excited. For the first time since 2000 Hungarian fifteen-year-olds have managed to receive at least an average score in reading comprehension. I can’t say that Rózsa Hoffmann, undersecretary in charge of education, was overly happy about the result because she is planning to turn Hungarian education upside down; according to her the liberals and socialists ruined the good old Prussian-type education that stressed discipline and lexical knowledge. Lexical knowledge is a euphemism for rote learning. And now suddenly there is a significant change for the better. Hoffmann immediately announced that the reason for this great leap is the excellence of Hungarian teachers. Interesting but not too convincing because then Ms Hoffmann would also have to admit that ten years ago, when she herself was still teaching high school, the teachers were lousy.

Zoltán Pokorni (Fidesz)–who is lately an opponent of the Christian Democratic Hoffmann and who is most likely mighty sore that Viktor Orbán gave the job to Hoffmann instead of to him (he was minister of education in the first Orbán government)–came up with a truly ridiculous idea. These kids are better because they began their elementary school education during his tenure in 2000-2001. The liberals are also elated because they think that the better results are due to their educational reforms. However, I suspect that a professor of education at the University of Szeged is closer to the truth: the children’s growing familiarity with the Internet is partly if not largely responsible for the better results. This contention is further supported by the sad fact that in math and science the results are not an iota better than they were ten years ago.

So, what is this PISA test? Its complete name is Programme for International Student Assessment. It is a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old students’ scholastic performance. They have repeated the test every three years since 2000. The program is coordinated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with a view to improving educational policies and outcomes.

In the reading test PISA doesn’t measure the extent to which the students are fluent readers or how competent they are at word recognition or spelling. Instead the test focuses on how they are “able to construct, extend and reflect on the meaning of what they have read across a wide range of continuous and non-continuous texts.” The test, part multiple choice and part involving fuller answers, lasts two hours.

Some commentators pointed out that although Rózsa Hoffmann was talking about better than average performance, actually this is a bit of an exaggeration. See the attached graph.

Reading comprehension, 2009

It was also pointed out that even if the results are promising, 17% of Hungarian fifteen-year-olds are still functional illiterates. However, on a 600-point scale the difference between the results of 2006 and 2009 was twelve points: Hungarian kids received an average of 482 in 2006 and 494 in 2009. I might add here that between 2000 and 2006 the Hungarian results didn’t improve at all. In 2000 Hungarian students were behind their Spanish, Austrian, Czech, Italian and Greek colleagues but by now they reached the level of the Irish, British, Swedish, Icelandic, French, American, Danish and Swiss contemporaries.

A few details also surfaced that one really didn’t expect. One is that in the last nine years the number of students who read for pleasure every day has grown by 6.5 percent. What is even more astonishing is that the number of those who read newspapers has grown by 40%! I suspect that it is here that the Internet makes a huge impact.

But what is disheartening are the huge differences between school and school. Scholastic achievement is also greatly influenced by family background. More so than in other OECD countries. This is due to free selection of schools or rather entrance examinations even on the middle school level. Interestingly enough in Finland where PISA results are exceptionally good, always in the top three, there are no “elite schools.” I understand that some of the “elite schools” in Budapest and in some of the other larger cities are considered to be among the best in the world. The problem is that they are few in number and the rest are middling or worse. Fidesz’s old-fashioned ideas about village schools with few students and few really qualified teachers drag down the educational attainment of the country as a whole. Hoffmann expressed her hope that her reforms–meaning going back to the past–will result in even better results in three years’ time.

As for the list. China is in first place but this is somewhat misleading because the test takers all came from the Shanghai region, which is one of the best developed and richest parts of China. These Chinese students received 556 points, South Korea was second with 539 and Finland third with 536. Hungary got 494 points, and Kyrgyzstan was at the bottom of the list with 314.

Thinking back to my school years, I learned most of what I still consider to be important not in the classroom but outside of it. Mostly by reading. My guess is that today’s kids do the same. That’s why they have improved their reading comprehension but not their knowledge of math and science which is taught only in schools. There is some hope that eventually there will be an adequately educated society in Hungary, but for that the political leadership must solve the problem of the disparity among schools. In the last twenty years there was no political will to do so.

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I can’t comment on education in Hungary (except to say that Hungarian schoolchildren are so much better behaved than those in the UK!), but the data on reading puzzles me. One of the things I most noticed when first visiting Hungary 10 years ago was the huge number of book shops. Debrecen had dozens of them, and even small towns had at least one, sometimes several. And, whenever there was a market, or streets stalls set up before a festival or carnival, there would be stalls selling books. Not just cheap trashy stuff either, in fact one of the stalls set up before the flower carnival this year stocked entirely English language books, including the complete Penguin classics (the only time I have seen anyone stock the entire range outside of London). With the expansion of the mega-bookshops like Alexandra, many of the smaller shops have closed, and I would estimate Debrecen has lost between a third and a half of its bookshops. But, by comparison, the town I live in in the UK, which has about two thirds the population of Debrecen and has recently become a ‘university’ town, has precisely two bookshops, both the inevitable Waterstones (and one… Read more »

No one is buying them. Bookshops in Hungary are filled with the same rubbishy stock. Translations are haphazard, there is no real strategy. Publishers print because they get state support or a ‘dowry’ from a western publisher. That one Waterstones in Slough or wherever it is will have a better selection than all the bookshops in Debrecen and perhaps even Budapest put together. Just look at the Hungarian books: cheap reprints of classics, or trashy badly written non-fiction. It is not business sense to stock all the classics in the UK. A book shop is not a library, but a business. There is no market for them, and can always be ordered in. Hungarian shops stock the whole lot precisely because they lack commercial acumen. They have all the the penguin classics because in part because they conform to the Hungarian educational notion that anything published before 1940 must be good, in part because due to lack of copyright, which you pay 600 Fts for Jane Austen but 3000 Fts for Chuck Palahniuk. .


” One is that in the last nine years the number of students who read for pleasure every day has grown by 6.5 percent.”
What I have seen in the classroom is Harry Potter followed by Twilight – reading has become fashionable in the last nine years.

Karl Pfeifer

When I was in Hungary (1938-43) there were already the book days. So reading books has a long tradition. In Austria many 15 years old have difficulty to understand a simple text, because many of them do not read at all.
When you see TV-spots of furniture one can understand why is it so. One cannot see any books shelves around just a huge TV.


I don’t know too much about the school system in Hungary, although my neighbours’ kids are all avid readers – and computer users …
Here in Héviz and Keszthely the bookshops are very well stocked not only with classics. Just saw a Hungarian edition of Dawkins’ “the god delusion” and of course all the popular American/Ebglish titls by Stephen King, Dan Brown etc have been translated into Hungarian.
My wife usually buys her “easy reading” now at a stall at the market that has a good selection at a good price – she just topped up her Agatha Christie collection.
I showed her a copy of Lady Chatterley’s Lover – but it’s already in her collection …

Eva S. Balogh

Paul: “but the data on reading puzzles me.”
I just read but I didn’t include it in the blog because it really didn’t belong there that half of the population didn’t read even one book last year. But apparently that is an improvement over the 2000 data when 60% didn’t.


What is Hungary’s public library system like? Do they generally have a better stock of books (if the stuff in the shops is rubbish)? Is that where the kids are accessing the Internet? I wonder whether there’s an opportunity here to get kids engaged in reading generally as well as drumming up interest in other subjects like math or science. Certainly that’s the case for many Americans (it was for me, anyway).


“What is Hungary’s public library system like?”
Pretty much like the one I experienced in the UK. Though, our town has an exceptionally good children’s library situated in a children’s arts centre. They don’t seem to have many users though, my kids regularly take 10-20 books out, and nobody seems to care about when they are brought back. I also think that domestically produced books are cheap and very good quality – I can’t vouch for what is in between the covers. But I am also surprised that a lot of rubbish written in English gets translated: why bother?


Sophist: “But I am also surprised that a lot of rubbish written in English gets translated: why bother?”
Because Hungarians are not different form others: most of them read rubbish.


Éva – I’d be interested in the same figures for the UK. I suspect book reading is even lower (possibly significantly so) over here.
Just from observation, I see far more people reading books on trains, etc in Hungary than I do in the UK.
And having proper bookshelves in your house is so rare here that visitors always commnent on ours (often in tones of amazement!).
And as for QWERTZ’s comments, I know a couple who run a small town bookshop and his/her remarks don’t match my experience of them and their shop at all.


I’m with Paul on this one and I completely disagree with QWERTZ. Hungary has a lot more bookshops per capita than the UK. When I lived in Hungary the local bookshop (in Budapest admittedly) had an English language section which was as good as the main bookshop in the town I live in in the UK (pop. 60,000).
I also have noticed that houses in Hungary frequently have bookshelves and lots of books. In the UK this seems much rarer.


David:”I also have noticed that houses in Hungary frequently have bookshelves and lots of books. In the UK this seems much rarer.”
My experience (form Transylvania) is that bookshelves are common in the houses of college graduates, especially those of families of multiple college graduate generations. Most others keep dishes, glasses and knick-knacks (such as glass fish) on their shelves.


I want to add that in my wife’s family everybody is an avid reader – her sister (whose house is almost as filled with books as mine), her son and his girlfrien whom I loaned several books from my collection of English Science Fiction and so on …
PS: When I first met my wife, I looked at her bookshelf and was really astonished to find everything from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks to Lady Chatterley – and I thought: This woman is interesting …
That’s how our relationship started – and we were both around 60 years already …


Seems that I messed up my posting yesterday.
Qwertz seems to think all books in the bookstores are rubbish. I beg to differ. Many transaltions are available in ungary that are not accessible in the US or in the UK. They are fantastic books and excellent transations. Prime examples are Ljuilla Ulickaya’s books. (Some are available in English but many are still in the works, while in Budapest I was able to pick them up easily). Of course there is trash literature as well, but one can find good books if one takes the time.


wolfi, it sounds like you have found the perfect woman. I wish you many years of happiness together.
Your post cheered me up after a long, difficult day.


“most of them read rubbish.”
But why not their own rubbish? It must as difficult/easy to write your own pulp fiction as to translate somebody else’s.
I understand the economics of dubbing foreign TV programs – its cheaper than making your own. But in publishing the costs are the same, aren’t they?


Thanks, Paul!
Yes we both feel like we’ve won the lottery …
And when I talk to the younger generation here in Hungary I have hope for the best (Of course I usually talk to people who know some English or German, so I may be biased)
These people are well educated and well informed not only in Hungarian matters, they use computers and all the latest technologies (twitter, facebook, skype etc).
At least here around Héviz the future of Hungary and Hungarians looks brighter …

Scott H Moore

Density of bookshops is NOT a good proxy for book-reading. Let me put that another way – there is no relation between the number of bookshops in a given town and the number of books per year that the average citizen of that town reads.
Here is some real data (just a small teaser, as more data is freely available at the press of an ‘enter’ key):
Proportion of Hungarians who read 0 books in 2009 = 50% (source quoted by Eva Balogh)
Proportion of Americans who read 0 books in 2006 = 25% (source: IPSOS, 2007)
Proportion of British children who read at least 1 book per week = 53% (source, Childwise 2008)

Scott H Moore

I’ve just skim read the PISA report. I find it interesting that Hungarian students outpeform US and UK students in most aspects of reading literacy, but are poorer than their American and British counterparts in “reflecting on and evaluating” what they have read and in reading “non-continuous texts”. I evaluate this as follows: Hungarian students are better at fundamental reading skills but are poorer at advanced skills.
I suspect that the reason for the relatively poor average performance of American and British students is that the performance of the lowest quartile is particularly bad. Conversely, I assume that the highest quartile of US and UK students outperform the highest quartile of Hungarian students.