Are we failing our failing students?

by Daniel Salinas
Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

Tens of thousands of students in each country, and millions of students around the world, reach the end of their compulsory education without having acquired the basic skills needed in today’s society and workplace. In fact, not even the countries that lead the international rankings of education performance can yet claim that all of their 15-year-old students have achieved a baseline level of proficiency in mathematics, reading and science. Apart from the obvious damage this does to individual lives, failure of this magnitude has severe consequences for economies and societies as a whole.

A new PISA report, Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed, offers an in-depth analysis of low performance at school and recommends ways to tackle the problem.

Analyses show that a combination and accumulation of factors contribute to the likelihood that some students perform poorly in school. Coming from a socio-economically disadvantaged family is the most obvious and perhaps strongest risk factor of low performance at school, but it is not the only one. Students with an immigrant background and those who speak a language at home that is different from the one spoken at school, rural students and those living in single-parent families are, in many countries, more likely to perform poorly. Interestingly, gender stereotypes affect girls and boys differently, depending on the subject: whereas girls are more likely than boys to be low performers in mathematics, boys are more likely than girls to be low performers in reading and science.

Students’ educational opportunities, attitudes and behaviours also matter. Students who had no or only brief access to pre-primary education are more likely to be low performers than those who attended more than a year of pre-primary education. Low performers are also more often found among those who have repeated a grade – whether because low performance led to grade repetition or because grade repetition in earlier grades led to disengagement from school and low performance at age 15 – or who are enrolled in vocational programmes. But students who make the most out of available opportunities – attending school regularly, working harder at school, spending more time doing homework, and participating in extracurricular activities available at school – are less likely to perform poorly.

School-related factors can also contribute to students’ low performance. For example, students are more likely to acquire at least basic proficiency in their school subjects when their teachers have high expectations for them, have better morale, and respond to their students’ needs. Schools where there is more socio-economic diversity among students and less grouping by ability between classes tend to provide a better learning environment for struggling students.

Clearly, there are things that can be done to improve student performance; and over the past decade a diverse group of countries – including Brazil, Germany, Japan and Mexico – has reduced the share of low performers in one or more subjects. The first step for policy makers is to make tackling low performance a priority in their education policy agenda. Because the profile of low performers varies significantly across countries, it is essential to identify low performers and develop multi-pronged, tailored approaches. Tackling low performance requires stepping in as early as possible. That means, among other things, offering pre-primary education opportunities and remedial support in early grades. Providing schools with language and/or psycho-social support (e.g. psychologists, mentors, counsellors) for struggling students and their families, offering extracurricular activities, and training teachers to work with these students can also help. Students, too, can help themselves make the most of their schooling – and their own potential – by showing up at school – on time – and investing their best efforts in learning.

Low-Performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed
PISA in Focus No. 60: Who are the low-performing students?
PISA á la loupe No. 60: Qui sont les élèves peu performants?
Photo credit: © OECD

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