Who are the all-round top students?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Summer in the northern hemisphere is barely over and we’re already talking about doing well in school? Not only are we talking about doing well in school, we’re talking about doing very well in school – and in all of the three subjects that PISA assesses: reading, mathematics and science. 

As this month’s PISA in Focus explains, all-rounders – students who attain proficiency Level 5 or 6 in all three assessment subjects – are rare: only 4.1% of 15-year-old students meet this high standard. Why do – or should – countries care about the number of all-rounders they produce? Knowing the proportion of students who excel in these three subjects helps countries to determine the depth of their future talent pool, which has significant implications for a country’s ability to compete and grow in an increasingly information-based global economy.

On average across OECD countries, 16.3% of students are top performers in at least one of the subject areas of science, mathematics or reading. But just because a student is a top performer in one subject does not necessarily mean that the student excels in all subjects. In Switzerland, for example, nearly one in four students is a top performer in mathematics, but only about one in 12 is a top performer in reading and one in ten is a top performer in science. The same is true for many Southeast Asian countries and economies, notably Hong Kong-China, Korea, Macao-China, Shanghai-China, Singapore and Chinese Taipei, where the likelihood of finding students who score at Level 5 or 6 in mathematics is considerably greater than that of finding students who score at that level in reading or science.

All-rounders are found in many countries and economies, but the proportion of these students varies considerably across school systems. For example, Shanghai-China has the largest share of all-rounders – 14.6% of 15-year-old students – followed by Singapore (12.3%); but fewer than 1% of students in Chile, Mexico, Turkey and 21 other countries and economies meet the criteria for being “all-rounders”. Yet all-rounders are found nearly equally among boys (3.8%) as among girls (4.4%).

What is somewhat surprising is that, among countries with similar mean scores in PISA, there are notable differences in the percentage of academic all-rounders. For example, Korea and Singapore score about the same in mathematics, reading and science; but while 12% of students in Singapore are all-rounders, only 7% of students in Korea are. This means that even the best-performing school systems are not equally capable of producing top performers in all subjects.

But it’s something to aspire to, even in late August.


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