PISA 2018: decline in reading, better in mathematics, stable in science

In Education Research International

ULiège's “Service d'Analyse des Systèmes et des Pratiques d'enseignement (ASPe)” analysed the data for French-speaking Belgium from the international PISA Survey on the skills of 15-year-old students

The Wallonia-Brussels Federation took part in the seventh cycle of the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) survey. This large international survey, conducted in 2018 in 79 countries or education systems, assesses reading comprehension, mathematics and science, with a particular focus on reading in 2018.

Data relating to the skills of Belgian French-speaking students are analysed by the “Service d'Analyse des Systèmes et des Pratiques d'enseignement”, headed by Professor Dominique LAFONTAINE within the Faculty of Psychology, Speech and Language Therapy, and Education of the University of Liège. Valérie QUITTRE, Anne MATOUL (survey coordinator), Geneviève HINDRYCKX and Sophie BRICTEUX accompanied Professor Lafontaine in the survey conducted by the Wallonia-Brussels Federation.

The evaluation tasks for PISA 2018 were designed to reflect a vision of what reading is like in today's world. They focus on digital reading and critical skills such as searching for relevant information on the web or assessing the credibility of sources.

In French-speaking Belgium, a representative sample of 3,221 15-year-olds from 107 schools took part in the evaluation. These 15-year-old students attend different grades and tracks. Thus, 52% of students are “on time” in their course (grade 10), 1% are advanced, the others are in grade 9, or even still attend grade 7 (10% of students). Compared to 2015, the proportion of students behind and the proportion of students attending grade 7 decreased by 4% and 3% respectively.

Decline in reading, better in mathematics, stable in science

In reading, the results for 2018 are slightly lower than those for 2015. While student performance had improved significantly in 2009 and 2012, reaching the OECD average, a fairly significant decline was recorded in 2015, and the proportion of students with basic skills rose again. This decline in performance is confirmed in 2018. With a score of 481, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation is below the OECD average (487).

In comparison, students of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation perform better when confronted with digital reading assessment tasks, where they have to search or compare information from multiple sources. In this type of task, young French-speaking Belgians do as well as the OECD average, while in more traditional tasks (a single text followed by questions), they are below this average.

Traditional reading practices are less frequent than they were ten years ago and interest in reading is declining. This is a major trend, affecting both girls and boys, observed in most OECD countries, and also a change in practice: to keep up with current events, young people are clearly turning to digital media rather than to magazines and newspapers in their printed form.

Mathematics scores (495) are up slightly and now above the OECD average (489).

Science results (483) are stable compared to previous cycles and not significantly different from the OECD average (485).

In terms of inequalities linked to social origin, the Wallonia-Brussels Federation still ranks among the education systems where these inequalities are most marked, alongside the Flemish Community, France, Hungary and Luxembourg.

Finally, the gap between young people of immigrant origin and young people of Belgian origin, of equivalent socio-economic origin, is relatively small; it is less marked than in other OECD countries. If the Wallonia-Brussels Federation is characterised by strong social inequalities, it seems that an inequality specifically linked to ethnic or cultural origin is not added to it.

Contrasting situation for school climate and learning environments

Another component available in the PISA 2018 survey concerns indicators relating to school climate and learning environments.

The indicators relating to student well-being and climate reveal a rather favourable situation in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation. On the other hand, indicators relating to learning environments show a more contrasting picture.

  • In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, 17% of pupils report that they have been victims of bullying at least a few times a month. This is 6% less than the average in OECD countries. Compared to 2015, there has been a slight decrease in the percentage of pupils who say they are bullied in French-speaking Belgium.
  • The climate of discipline in the classroom is less favourable in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation than in the other two Belgian communities. On average in OECD countries, the classroom discipline climate improved between 2009 and 2018. This improvement is not observed in French-speaking Belgium.
  • 15-year-old pupils of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation skip less isolated courses and full days than the average in OECD countries; on the other hand, they arrive more often late.
  • The students of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation describe their French teacher as showing a fairly high level of enthusiasm for the subject taught and a pleasure in teaching in general.
  • Overall, the students of the Wallonia-Brussels Federation feel supported by their teachers. More of them than in the other two Belgian communities say, for example, that their teacher often helps them in their learning. On the other hand, fewer than the average in OECD countries report receiving personal feedback from their teachers on, for example, how to improve their performance.
  • In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, many school principals consider that teachers' behaviour such as failure to meet individual pupils' needs, absenteeism, resistance to change, excessive severity or lack of preparation for classes hinder pupils' learning. Among all OECD countries, only the Netherlands is in a more unfavourable situation.
  • The school climate and environment as perceived by students in French-speaking Belgium does not encourage cooperation or competition. The average cooperation and competition indices are the lowest of all OECD countries. According to the literature, this situation is not very favourable.
  • In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation, pupils report on average a fairly strong feeling of belonging to their school. Students' responses are very stable compared to those of 2015, while the sense of belonging to school has deteriorated on average in OECD countries.
  • The involvement of parents in school activities is lower than the average in OECD countries in French-speaking Belgium, as in the other two Belgian communities.


Read all documents relating to the PISA 2018 results in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation

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