Helping immigrant students to succeed

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Indicators and Analysis Division, Directorate for Education

Whether in flight from conflict, with the hope of building a better life, or to seize a social or economic opportunity, people have been crossing borders for as long as there have been borders to cross. Modern means of transportation and communication, the globalisation of the labour market, and the ageing of populations in OECD countries will drive migration well into the next decades. Education is key to helping immigrants and their families integrate into their adopted countries. How are education systems adapting?

Results from PISA 2009 show that although native students generally outperform students with immigrant backgrounds, some countries have been able to narrow the performance gap between the two groups considerably—even as the proportion of immigrant students has grown.

The latest issue of PISA in Focus notes that the percentage of 15-year-old students with an immigrant background grew by two percentage points, on average, between 2000 and 2009 among OECD countries  with comparable data. Immigrant students now constitute more than 5% of the 15-year-old student populations in 13 OECD and partner countries and economies. In Ireland, New Zealand, Spain, the United States, and the partner countries Liechtenstein and the Russian Federation, the percentage of students with an immigrant background increased by five percentage points or more over the past decade, and these students now represent from 8% to 30% of these countries’ student populations.

During the same time period, a few countries narrowed the performance gap between native and immigrant students. In Belgium and Switzerland, for example, the performance gap shrank by nearly 40 score points, even though native students still outperform students with an immigrant background by 68 score points in Belgium and by 48 score points in Switzerland. And Switzerland was able to reduce the performance gap despite the fact that the percentage of students with an immigrant background rose during the period. Germany, New Zealand and the partner country Liechtenstein also show a narrowing of the performance gap between these two groups of students.

What these trends tell us is that there are ways that governments and schools can help students from immigrant backgrounds to overcome some of the disadvantages associated with that background. Often, students with an immigrant background are socio-economically disadvantaged. On average across OECD countries, the performance gap is reduced from 43 to 27 score points when comparing students of similar socio-economic status, regardless of whether they are from immigrant backgrounds or are native to the country in which they were tested.

But the fact that a 27-point performance gap–equivalent to well over half a school year–persists, even after accounting for socio-economic status, implies that other factors also have an impact on student performance. These may be related to whether the students were born in the country in which they were tested or elsewhere, or whether, when they’re at home, they speak the same language as that used in the PISA test. Yet given that the performance gap varies so widely across countries, even taking into account these other characteristics, and given that in some countries the performance gap has changed markedly over time, it is clear that public policy can make a difference to these students’ progress in school.

For more information:
on PISA:
Full set of PISA in Focus:
PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background
PISA 2009 Results: Learning Trends

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