Another PISA test, another poor performance

It was seven years ago that I wrote my first post on the results of the 2009 PISA test. PISA stands for Program for International Student Assessment. It is a worldwide evaluation of the scholastic performance of 15-year-old students. The very first test was administered in 2000, and Hungarian education was found wanting. Students were tested in mathematics, science, and reading. In 2003 problem-solving was added to the test. While the 2009 tests showed a marked improvement over earlier results, the 2012 results were truly abysmal. Hungarian students did worse in all three categories in comparison to their achievements three years earlier.

The Orbán government’s educational policies completely revamped the educational system, returning to the old-fashioned rote learning that earlier administrations had tried to liberalize somewhat after 2002. Liberalization was a dirty word for Fidesz politicians no matter where it occurred, and therefore practically all earlier reforms were thrown out the window. In addition, the educational structure was reorganized, with chaos ensuing. New textbooks were published in a great hurry and ended up being deficient. Despite the rush, some of the books were not available for the beginning of the school year. Lately, there has been a teacher shortage. All this has had a negative effect on public education.

In 2010, when the promising PISA results were released, Rózsa Hoffmann, whose tenure as minister of education is considered to be something of a disaster, was not happy with the good tidings. She and others in the Orbán government who had condemned the socialist-liberal governments’ policies now had to face hard facts: even their timid reform efforts had borne fruit. When the poor results of the 2013 test were released, the Orbán government was reluctant to assume any responsibility. Every time Hungary fails to shine in international rankings, the reaction is always the same: the results are either someone else’s fault or the numbers don’t reflect the true state of affairs.

The latest PISA test was not the usual math-science-reading test given every three years but a new test designed to measure “collaborative problem-solving,” where again Hungarian students did poorly. Hungary ended up #33 out of 50 with a score 472. The EU average was 500. In the region, Poland was not among the participating countries, but the Czech Republic, Estonia, Croatia, and Slovenia all scored better than Hungary, while only Lithuania, Slovakia, and Bulgaria scored worse.

In comparison to the earlier PISA tests, this collaborative problem-solving test proved to be the hardest for the Hungarian students. The poor standing of Hungarian students could have been predicted because we have been hearing complaints from foreign businessmen that their Hungarian employees don’t excel in teamwork situations. More importantly, most of these 15-year-olds have never had the opportunity to sit down with their classmates and figure out a problem together, so the test was undoubtedly a real challenge for them.

The trouble doesn’t lie with the students, who were faced with a test that was absolutely alien to them. The blame falls on the politicians and the educational establishment. An article appeared in Gépnarancs with a very good title: “The teachers also need PISA.” Even so-called progressive teachers admit that the great majority of their colleagues are unwilling and most likely unfit to teach in a way that would prepare their students for this kind of test.

One of Rózsa Hoffmann’s first moves was to exempt teachers’ training from the so-called Bologna system, which four years earlier, in 2006, introduced a three-cycle system of higher education (bachelor/master/doctorate). In that scheme students, after the completion of their bachelor degrees, could move on to teachers’ training on the master’s level. Hoffmann decided that this system was unsuitable for training competent teachers. So, as of September 2013, an 18-year-old boy or girl had to make a choice: either they enter a bachelor’s program or they start teachers’ training right away. Given the low prestige and the low pay of teachers, teacher’s training isn’t an attractive proposition. Students who want to teach in the first eight grades have to spend 4+1 years in school. Those who want to teach in high school must finish 5+1 years. The extra year is practice teaching. Thus, just like almost everywhere else, the best and the brightest don’t end up becoming teachers. Long gone are the days when first-rate scholars began their careers teaching in high schools. Looking at some of the problems on PISA tests, I wonder how well teachers would do on them. I tried some of the science tests and came to the conclusion that one doesn’t need a solid science background. Logical thinking is quite enough.

A major obstacle to improving the situation in education is the Hungarian government’s unwillingness to admit any shortcomings, be it in education, the economy, or anything else. An article that appeared in Origo is a perfect example of the typical government reaction. First, if the results on any given test are bad, they trot out another test on which Hungarians did splendidly. Second, they argue that a single measurement means nothing, conveniently forgetting that the other PISA test results were also very poor. Third, only 6,000 students took this test, and they were exclusively 15- or 16-year-olds. Therefore, the test “by itself cannot be considered conclusive.” The fourth “excuse” is really funny: even the European Commission thinks that “with the changes introduced, the prospects of both students and teachers have improved.” Since when does the Orbán government care about the European Commission’s opinion? Fifth, the Commission’s Education and Training Monitor 2017 pointed out that Hungary spends more on education than the European Union average. Sixth, Hungary is the only country in the EU where children must attend kindergarten from age three, and therefore, for some strange reason, we can forget about the current test scores of the 15- and 16-year-olds. Finally, none of the recent low test scores signify anything. The effects of the newly introduced reforms will not show up until 2018 or 2021. So, the present results can be ignored, and Hungary can postpone the day of reckoning.

November 23, 2017
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… It is just like this regime deliberately want to destroy the fabric of the Hungarian society… Sorry, this isn’t ‘just like’, this is it exactly. Education is the very cornerstone of every nation willing to progress for a better future, and if they fail in this noble task, then they fail themselves. The despicable act of the regime reducing the compulsory education to 16 years from the previous standard of 18 shows exactly what kind of a society they are striving for. By turning the whole education system on its head this once cultured and innovative nation is well on its way to cultural and historical oblivion… The only society that suits the agenda of the Orban regime is a herd of uneducated ‘mamluks’ that can be controlled from above without the slightest opposition. And I have to report that Orban et al are doing very well on this path of shame…

However . . . I think that churning out excess numbers of low quality, useless and often overly verbose graduates from the humanities and social sciences departments of universities is both an error and a problem, and not only in Hungary. A tiny, though often virtually unreadable value-add to the knowledge base of society (if at all), at enormous cost. This problem is particularly severe here in Australia, where educational standards are not particularly high, except in some specialist departments of a handful of elite universities, and educational value tends to be conflated with the number of graduates churned out. The situation is particularly bad in the humanities and social sciences, where work at even MA and PhD levels is more often than not egregiously substandard, with works by these hordes of “scholars” relentlessly filling the shelves of university libraries with useless tomes that nobody would ever bother to read. “Oils ain’t oils” went a Castrol ad in the eighties here in Australia, or as Orwell wrote (with sarcastic intent, of course): “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” Odd as it may be, that – I think – happens to apply particularly well to… Read more »
As far as educational systems and outcomes are concerned, the three countries I am familiar with are Australia, Israel and Hungary. Although the systems appear to be rather different at first glance, the outcomes are pretty similar as far as the performance of the average 15 year old is concerned in the STEM subjects and problem solving, in which the evolving trends are tracked at regular intervals by the PISA tests. However, when we look at high performance students, the picture is a lot more differentiated. A boy or girl talented in STEM subjects and problem solving will do pretty well regardless of the education system of the country. In Israel, both boy and girl high achievers in STEM subjects and problem solving are greatly admired, respected, appreciated and generously supported if they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as Arabic communities or financially strapped immigrant families. Australia being a sports mad country, boy and girl high achievers in STEM subjects and problem solving are culturally pretty much at odds with the spirit of the place, but odd-balls as they might be from the majority point of view, they are given every opportunity to fulfill their potential, and if they are… Read more »


Kudos for the presentation.

Adding to the lowly social status is the teachers’ starting pay – the lowest among 37 OECD countries, but for Lithuania.
In view of the above I can’t figure out how Hungary’s spending on education is just above EU average, even as we know of the ~30% overpricing of all gov projects.

Note that in many subjects there is a “choice” of two gov approved (written by clients or obedient “committees”) textbooks and that the teachers, now all central gov employees, have no latitude to stray from the prescribed course.

Finally the whole system was renamed from “education” to “nevelési” which means bringing up, or rather drilling in the local reality.

The whole process reflects the society of intolerance, close mindedness, aggressive dominance and veneration of authority – features of the servitude past which persist. Hungarians seem to be one of the worst in integration and team work, e.g. see the business structure.
Yes, a recipe for a creeping disaster which is actually happening.


I know. Very sad.

And yes, the intent of “nevelési” is indeed nationalist and religious indoctrination not unlike that practiced in far out religious sects or the ideological indoctrination in schools and universities that was practiced under the Communists.

As far from “education” as Makó from Jerusalem, to use a well-known Hungarian saying.


Yes, that’s what all the right wingers want:
Indoctrination instead of education!
Whether they are Muslims, Christians, Nazis – they’re all similar, also in their hate of anything foreign …


Re: ‘the oncoming disaster’

The attitudes given to ‘education’ in Magyarorszag today sadly brings to mind some words of Milosz describing life in the East based on the ‘New Faith’ as ‘stupifying and loathsome’ in its tenets. It still would appear his observations continue in all its sinister glory.

The less educated a populace the more they simply become pawns on a political chessboard. They unfortunately will not have that crucial element of an intellectual independence to know when they are being led to acquiesce to value judgments made by an autocracy. ‘Obediant dullards’ thus become the grand electorate. And then you can do anything with them.

Milosz made a point that on some things involving standards of freedom sometimes individuals get sick. You can eat one frog then the second but on the third the stomach revolts. It’s tough then to see Magyars continually swallowing the frogs. And having such incredible strong stomachs as it destroys their minds to think, engage and learn.


Hungary is not the only country where right wing politicians want a return to the 19th Century style of class oriented education – minimal education for the masses in the public schools and better education for the children of the privileged class in parochial/private schools.

They don’t get it that this is not only inhuman but also a waste of potential!
Rather OT:
My favourite (counter)example is my friend the zoology prof whose mother was a war widow in the neighbouring German village, surely not an intellectual, but a very nice person – and hardworking to get her son through the Gymnasium.
Our clerical fascist teachers didn’t like people like him “without a background” but he made it – and he isn’t the only one …
He was a member of our little group of intellectuals, reading Nietzsche (and the Jin Ping Mei … :)) after school – and we are still friends and meet regularly.
Imho the egalitarian education (promoted by the Allied powers occupying West Germany) was one of the reason for the success of Germany after WW2.
But if Hungary doesn’t want that …


There is no ‘right wing’ anything…there are only the dupes of the government in power.



The rabid anti-semites of Hungary will be pleased to learn–they always like to add fuel to their anger–that Soros has put 18 billion dollars into a private charity (in the US) where it will be safe from taxation by the IRS.

Can the Hungaricoes of Hungary imagine how much of his profits from Hungary Soros has sheltered from taxation?

Oh, the wonder of it all…those damned Jews!



Many billionaires in theUSA have done similar things – but of course the fascist zerohedge has to report this as something special.
But please don’t look there if you value your sanity!



My opinions are ‘home-brewed’ and not adopted from anywhere.

As for my sanity…it’s in severe trouble with the advent of the Trump age, and American docility in the face of it–


Yes, there these two wars going on:
War against Terror
War against Truth


For those who think that I too incessantly harp on Hungary’s nazi past, this from from the philosopher, Karl Jaspers:

” That which has happened is a warning. It must continually be remembered. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented. ”

So, Hungaricoes, if not the schools, than inform your priests to educate your young…


Hungary actually out scored the USA in math on the PISA test getting a 477 to the USA score of 470. Hungary had a lower reading comprehension level than the USA, it had lower scores in science with a 477 to the USA score of 496. The U.S. like Hungary scores below the top performers on the PISA when compared with economically developed countries in Europe and Asia.

Up to now the human pool of talent in the USA has not been too relevant because we can just buy our talent from off shore if need be. That is not a luxury Hungary has however. Trump and his anti-immigration policies also may make it more difficult to buy up talent. Clearly Orban has not exactly put out the welcome mat for immigrants either, but coupled with low wages there is a real problem for Hungary.

We are having real problems in the USA finding higher qualified enlisted men for the Army, and that is becoming more necessary because of the increased technical aspects of warfare. Fortunately neither Russia or China is doing much better in the quality of its enlisted service personnel.