PISA 2018 study : France can do better


The latest global survey of the OECD's PISA ranking, launched in 2000, which assesses the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems, has just been released. France remains one of the countries with very high levels of educational inequality, revealing that the achievements of 15-year-old students are just above the average of the 36 OECD countries. One in four students in OECD countries fail to perform the simplest reading comprehension tasks. Does this mean that he or she is likely to find it harder to succeed in an increasingly unstable and digital world? Analysis of the French results.

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) ranking was launched to compare education systems around the world and has become one of the most scrutinized and commented on in the world in its triennial publications. To date and in twenty years, 80 countries have been tested for the latest ranking published on 3 December 2019.

About 600,000 young people, representative of the approximately 32 million 15-year-olds in school in the 79 participating countries and economies, took the 2-hour PISA tests in 2018 in reading literacy, science and mathematics, most of them on computers. In France, 6,308 students in 252 schools participated in the test, representing 756,477 15-year-old students (91% of the total population of 15-year-olds).

Most countries, particularly developed countries, have seen little improvement over the past decade, despite an increase in education spending of 15 % over the same period.

" Without a solid education, young people risk remaining on the margins of society, unable to face the challenges of tomorrow's world of work, and inequalities will continue to grow. "OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría warned at the launch of the report in Paris, opening a two-day conference on the future of education, adding: "... the report will be a major step forward in the development of education for all. Every dollar spent on education generates considerable benefits in terms of social and economic progress and contributes to building an inclusive and prosperous future for all. "

Reading literacy is a recurring concern that is at the heart of this year's PISA survey. Being able to understand written language is essential in a wide range of human activities - whether it's following instructions in a textbook; understanding who does what, when, where and why in a particular situation; or communicating with others for a particular purpose or transaction. 

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PISA recognises that technological progress has changed the way in which information is read and exchanged, whether at home, at school or at work. Computerization has created and made accessible new forms of writing, ranging from concise objects (text messages; annotated search engine results) to long and diffuse objects (websites consisting of many pages referenced under tabs; digitization of archives on microfiche).

In response to this development, education systems are increasingly integrating electronic literacy into their curricula.

Reading literacy was the major area of assessment in PISA 2018. The tests were administered on computers in most of the 79 countries and economies that participated in the assessment and consisted of new text formats and items thanks to their computerization. The tests were designed to assess the level of proficiency in electronic reading comprehension, while ensuring that students' proficiency in this area could be tracked over the past two decades.

In PISA 2018, understanding the written word means not only understanding, using and evaluating texts, but also thinking about and engaging with them. This ability should enable everyone to achieve their goals, develop their knowledge and potential, and participate actively in society.

On average, about 77 % of students have at least level 2 on the reading literacy scale in OECD countries. These students are at least able to identify the main idea of a medium-length text, to find information that meets explicit, but sometimes complex, criteria, and to think about the content and form of a text if explicitly asked to do so.

In reading comprehension, China is in first place with four Chinese provinces combined (Beijing-Shanghaï-Jiangsu-Zhejiang, 555 points), the city-state of Singapore (549 points), Macao (525 points) and Hong Kong (524 points).

Estonia (523 points), Canada and Finland (520 points) lead the OECD countries. France, with an overall score of 493 points, is slightly above the OECD average (487 points) in reading, mathematics and science.

On average, in OECD countries, 8.7 % of students are high achievers in reading literacy as they score at level 5 or 6 on the PISA proficiency scale. Students at these levels are able to understand long texts, juggle abstract or confusing concepts and distinguish between facts and opinions based on implicit clues about information or its source. More than 10 % of 15-year-old students are high achievers in 20 education systems, including 15 OECD countries.

The proportion of poor students, both girls and boys, also increased on average between 2009 (the last year in which reading literacy was the dominant subject in PISA) and 2018.

Read the report on the overall results for France

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The writing: falling ...

The average score of students in France is 493 points in reading literacy, the major domain assessed in PISA 2018 - placing France slightly above the OECD average (487 points) and between 20th and 26th place in reading literacy among PISA countries and between 15th and 21st place among OECD countries, on a par with Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Portugal and Slovenia.

About 79% of students reached at least Level 2, a proportion close to the OECD average (77%). These students are able to identify the main idea in a medium-length text, find information based on explicit, and sometimes complex, criteria, and reflect on the purpose and form of texts when explicitly asked to do so.

9.2 % of students are high performers in reading comprehension, meaning that they have reached level 5 or 6 on the test (OECD average: 8.7 %). At these levels, students are able to understand long texts, deal with abstract or counter-intuitive concepts, and distinguish between facts and opinions based on implicit clues about the content or source of information.

Compared to the average of the countries/economies participating in PISA, students in France seem slightly more comfortable with items asking them to "locate information" in a text (496 points on average) than with those asking them to "understand" (490 points on average) or "analyse and reflect" on a text (491 points on average).

Students in France also performed slightly above the OECD average in mathematics and science.

The performance of French pupils is therefore in line with the world average, but France once again stands out for its very high educational inequalities.

Trends in Performance in Reading, Mathematics and Science

Mathematics and Science: in the middle

In France, French students scored 495 points in mathematics in the PISA 2018 test, slightly above the OECD average (489 points). France ranks between 15th and 24th in mathematics among OECD countries, with an average performance comparable to that of Australia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Latvia, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal and the United Kingdom.  
79 % students achieved at least level 2 on the mathematics test (OECD average: 76 %). At a minimum, these students can interpret and recognize, without direct instruction, how a (simple) situation can be represented mathematically (e.g. by comparing the total distance between two alternative routes, or by converting prices into another currency).
Approximately one in nine students (11%) perform very well in mathematics (at least level 5 on the mathematics test), a level very similar to the OECD average (10.9%). Six Asian countries and economies have the highest number of students who have attained this level: the combined Chinese provinces and municipalities of Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Zhejiang (just over 44 %), Singapore (nearly 37 %), Hong Kong (China) (29 %), Macao (China) (nearly 28 %), Chinese Taipei (just over 23 %) and Korea (just over 21 %). These students can mathematically model complex situations and can select, compare, and evaluate appropriate problem-solving strategies for dealing with them. Only 1.8% of students in France have reached the highest level, level 6 (OECD average: 2.4%).

In science, students in France scored 493 points in scientific literacy in the PISA 2018 test, slightly higher than the OECD average (489 points). France ranks between 16th and 23rd in scientific performance among OECD countries, with an average performance comparable to that of Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, among others.
About four out of five students reached level 2 or higher in science (78 % compared to an OECD average of 79 %). At a minimum, these students can recognise the correct explanation of familiar scientific phenomena and use this knowledge to identify, in simple cases, whether a conclusion is valid on the basis of the data provided.
About 6.6 % of students are high achievers in science, meaning that they have reached level 5 or 6 (OECD average 6.8%). These students can apply their knowledge of science creatively and independently to a wide variety of situations, including those unfamiliar to them.

Social equity: to be reviewed 

As already observed in previous editions of PISA, France is one of the OECD countries where the link between socio-economic status and performance in PISA is the strongest: the difference in results between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students is 107 points, compared with an average difference of 89 points in OECD countries. Only Luxembourg and Israel have significantly larger gaps than that observed in France.

Many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have lower ambitions than might be expected given their academic performance. In France, one in five of the students performing well in PISA do not plan to go to higher education when they come from a disadvantaged background, whereas this proportion is very low when they come from an advantaged background.

School segregation and the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged schools with shortages of staff and materials

The career expectations of 15-year-old students reflect strong gender stereotypes. Among the top-performing students in mathematics or science, one in three boys in France wants to work as an engineer or scientist by the age of 30, while only one in six girls plan to enter this type of profession. Only 6 % of boys, but almost no girls in France, want to work in professions related to information and communication technologies (ICT).

Social inequalities are still the black spot in France's results in this 2018 edition. The gap of 107 points between the most advantaged (550 points) and the most disadvantaged (443 points) students shows a score well above the OECD average (89 points). This underperformance places France in the list of the most unequal countries, along with Germany and Belgium.

Teacher-student ratio: less support 

France is one of the countries where pupils feel the least support from their teachers to progress in learning. For example, less than one in four students in France (one in three on average in OECD countries) say their teacher tells them what they are good at. Similarly, less than two out of five students in France, compared with nearly one out of two students on average in OECD countries, say their teacher often or always tells them how to improve their results.

In France, only 57 % of students report that their teachers seem to be generally interested in the progress of each student (OECD average: 70 % of students). More than one in three students in France reported in PISA that they think their teacher never or only sometimes provides extra help in class when students need it (OECD average: one in four). Finally, almost one in four students in France attends a school where the principal stated that the fact that teachers are too strict could be detrimental, at least to some extent, to student learning (OECD average: one in eight students).

As for the role of parents, their involvement is controversial. According to school heads in France, about 39 % of parents discussed their child's progress with a teacher on their own initiative (OECD average: 41 %) and 56 % did so on the teacher's initiative (OECD average: 57 %). In a socially advantaged, large city or private school, one in two parents discussed their child's progress with a teacher on their own initiative, compared with only one in three in disadvantaged, rural or public schools.

According to headteachers, only 11 % of parents in France were involved in school management (for example, by joining a parents' committee or school board), which is lower than the OECD average (17 % were involved in local school administration).

Some countries and economies participating in PISA chose to survey parents, particularly on barriers to their participation in school activities. On average in the 9 OECD countries that distributed a questionnaire to parents, the most common barriers cited by parents to participating in school activities were related to lack of time - such as not being able to take time off work (34%) or because school meeting times were unsuitable (33%).

Discipline: Heckling in class 

France is one of the three countries where students report the greatest concern about disciplinary problems in the classroom. Only in Argentina and Brazil is the disciplinary climate index lower than the average observed in France.

One in two students report that there was noise and clutter in most or all classes (one in three, on average in OECD countries). Similarly, more than two out of five students in France report that learning time is reduced because of noise, as students take a long time to start working after the start of class (only one in four on average in OECD countries). However, these proportions have risen slightly in France since 2009, compared with an average increase in OECD countries.

In France, only 16 % students had skipped a full day of classes in the two weeks prior to the PISA 2018 test, less than the OECD average of 21 %. However, 29% of students in France reported missing some classes (OECD average: 27%), and 57% arrived late at school during the same period (OECD average: 48%). The share of students who were absent or late for school increased by 5 percentage points compared to the levels observed in France in PISA 2015.

In France, therefore, students are more often concerned than in most other OECD countries about subject problems that disrupt teaching. 

Student Well-being: Fear of Failure

Students in France express a lower sense of self-efficacy and a greater fear of failure than the average observed in OECD countries. 62 % of students report in PISA that when they fail, they are afraid of not having enough talent (OECD average: 55 %), and that this makes them doubt their plans for the future (OECD average: 54 %).

Three out of four students in France say they agree with the idea that when they find themselves in a difficult situation, they almost always manage to get out of it, which is lower than the OECD average (84%). Only 59% of students report that their self-confidence enables them to overcome difficult moments (OECD average: 71 %).

Students who express greater fear of failure report lower levels of satisfaction with their lives than students who express less concern about failure, after taking into account the socio-economic profile of the students and the school they attend.


Seven out of ten students in France report being satisfied with their lives, a proportion slightly higher than the OECD average. Between 2015 and 2018, the share of students satisfied with their lives in France decreased by 8 percentage points, which is more than the average observed in OECD countries (by 5 percentage points).

In France, students report spending 28 hours per week on the Internet outside school, 6 hours more than in PISA 2015 and 1 hour more than the OECD average (27 hours). In France, students who report being satisfied with their lives spend 27 hours per week on the Internet outside of school (OECD average: 26 hours), 4 hours less (OECD average: 3 hours less) than those who report being dissatisfied with their lives.


The PISA study is not the only reference in terms of knowledge acquisition. It only reinforces the problems that have long been raised by various analyses, such as the international PIRLS surveypublished at the end of 2017, which measures the reading comprehension performance of CM1 students, France was below the European and OECD averages. « Since the 2001 PIRLS survey, overall French performance has been gradually declining with each evaluation. ", said then the statistical department (DEPP) of the Ministry of National Education. Fabienne Rosenwald, director of the DEPP, said on France Culture on Sunday evening that " School is multidimensional, from there there is not a single classification. "
For Eric Charbonnier, analyst at the OECD's Directorate for Education, "PISA is not a school evaluation, it is how one is able to develop one's ideas and produce analyses based on one's knowledge. ".
Will this new PISA study finally give the bursts needed to improve our education system and preserve equal opportunities for all?

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