by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education
We all know how important the first years of formal education are; but what if the education provided during those years isn’t the best it can be? Are students forever penalised? A study in Canada that followed the 15-year-old students who had participated in PISA in 2000 and re-assessed their reading skills 9 years later shows that where education and training opportunities are readily available, deficits in initial education do not doom individuals to poor reading proficiency for the rest of their lives. In fact, on average, the young people surveyed gained 57 score points on the PISA reading scale between the ages of 15 and 24 – the equivalent of more than one year of school.
As this month’s PISA in Focus relates, those students who had performed poorly when they were 15 improved the most during the 9-year period; yet, for the most part, they were not able to fully catch up with their peers. For example, in 2000, when students who participated in PISA were 15, girls outscored boys in reading by an average of 32 points; by 2009, that gap had narrowed to 18 points. Similarly in PISA 2000, socio-economically advantaged students outscored their disadvantaged peers by more than 65 points; by 2009 that gap had narrowed to 50 points.
But one group of students did close the gap entirely: students born outside of Canada. At the age of 15, those born in Canada outperformed those born outside of the country by more than 20 score points – 545 to 524 score points, respectively. By the age of 24, young people with an immigrant background scored on a par with those who had been born in the country – around 600 score points, on average. This significant finding reflects the effectiveness of Canada’s education and integration policies.
The Canadian study identifies several ways that initial disadvantage in education can be overcome. Improvements in reading proficiency are strongly related to time spent in the education system, regardless of the educational pathways individuals follow. For instance, the improvement in reading skills among young adults who had spent 4 or more years in school after age 15 was about the same, whether they had actually completed a degree or not by age 24. Those who never completed a programme above high school, but who studied for 4 or more years after high school, improved their reading skills by 70 score points. Those who did complete a university degree improved their reading skills by 60 score points.
There is no doubt that greater proficiency at early ages is an advantage for further education and creates opportunities for additional studies that may not be as readily available to low-achievers. While taking the most common path – through secondary and then directly on to university-level education – appears to maximise improvements in reading proficiency, not everyone takes that route. The evidence in this unique study shows that learning does not end with compulsory education. Second-chance programmes and flexibility in education systems can help young people who have not had the advantages of supportive learning environments early in their lives to improve their reading proficiency later on.
PISA in Focus No. 19: Is there really such a thing as a second chance in education?