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.
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.