Viewing the Japanese system through the prism of PISA (excerpts)


In the PISA 2009 assessment of 15-year-olds, Japan is among the top performing OECD countries in reading (rank 5), mathematics (rank 4) and science (rank 2). In reading, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands and the partner country Singapore perform at the same level as Japan; in mathematics, Switzerland, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and the partner country and economy Liechtenstein and Macao-China show performance levels similar to that of Japan; and in science, Korea, the Netherlands and the partner country Singapore perform at the same level as Japan.
3. Even though there is a general perception that Japan’s performance has been declining, the PISA results show that  Japan has maintained high performance in reading, about 20 score points above the average, since 2000 (Table V.2.1). Student performance in mathematics and science has also remained broadly unchanged since 2003 and 2006, respectively, when PISA began to measure these trends.
4. Girls outperform boys in reading by an average of 39 points, similar to the OECD average, and this gender gap has been apparent since 2000 (Tables I.2.3 and V.2.4). However, there is no gender gap in performance in mathematics and science (Tables I.3.3 and I.3.6).
Compared with 2000, more Japanese students  read for enjoyment and have positive motivation for reading. For example, compared with students’  reports in 2000, in Japan, more students like talking about books with other people and have reading as one of their favorite hobbies, while less students find reading is a waste of time for them, find it hard to finish books, cannot sit still and read for more than a few minutes; and read only to get information that they need The disciplinary climate has also improved in Japan since 2000:
In Japan, 14% of 15-year-olds do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of reading proficiency, less than the OECD average of 19%.
In mathematics, 13% of students perform below Level 2 on the PISA mathematics. This is below the OECD average of 22% and that has remained unchanged since 2003 (Tables I.3.1 and Table V.3.2).
Students proficient at Level 2 in mathematics can employ basic algorithms, formulae, procedures or conventions. They can interpret and recognise mathematical situations in contexts that require no more than direct inference and extract relevant information from a single source and make use of a single representational mode. They are capable of direct reasoning and making literal interpretations of the results.
12. In science, 11% of students perform below Level 2 on the PISA science scale. This is below the OECD average of 18% and that has remained unchanged since 2006 (Tables I.3.4 and V.3.4). Students proficient at Level 2 can identify key features of a scientific investigation, recall single scientific concepts and information relating to a situation, and use results of a scientific experiment represented in a data table as they support a personal decision. In contrast, students who do not reach Level 2 in science often confuse key features of an investigation, apply incorrect scientific information, and  mix personal beliefs with scientific facts in support of a decision.
In mathematics, 6% of students in Japan reach the highest level of performance, compared with an OECD average of 3%. In comparison, 27% of students in Shanghai-China attain this level (Table I.3.1).
Students proficient at Level 6 on the mathematics scale are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning. These students can apply insight and understanding, along with a mastery of symbolic and formal mathematical operations and relationships, to develop new approaches and strategies for addressing novel situations. They can formulate and accurately communicate their actions and reflections regarding their findings, interpretations, arguments, and the appropriateness of these to the given situations.
18. At the next highest level, Level 5 on the PISA mathematics scale, students can still develop and work with models in complex situations, identifying constraints  and specifying assumptions. They can select, compare, and evaluate appropriate problem-solving strategies for dealing with complex problems related to these models. Students at this level can work strategically using broad, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills, appropriate linked representations, symbolic and formal characterisations, and insight pertaining to these situations. In Japan, 21% of students reach the PISA mathematics Level 5 or above, compared with 13% on average across OECD countries. In Shanghai-China, half of the students reach Level 5, in Singapore and Hong Kong-China more  than 30% do, and in Chinese Taipei, Korea, Switzerland and Finland more than 21% do.
19.  Students proficient at Level 6 in science can consistently identify, explain and apply scientific knowledge and knowledge about science in a variety of  complex life situations. They can link different information sources and explanations and use evidence from those sources to justify decisions. They clearly and consistently demonstrate advanced scientific thinking and reasoning, and they use their scientific understanding to solve unfamiliar scientific and technological problems. Students at this level can use scientific knowledge and develop arguments  in support of recommendations and decisions that centre on personal, social, or global situations. Some 2.6% of students in Japan reach Level 6 in science, above the OECD average of 1.1% (Table I.3.4). In comparison, in Singapore, 4.6% of students attain this level, in Shanghai-China, 3.9% do, in New Zealand, 3.6% do, in Finland, 3.3% do, and in Australia, 3.1% of students do.
20. Students proficient at the PISA science Level 5 can identify the scientific components of many complex life situations, apply both scientific concepts and knowledge about science to these situations, and can compare, select and evaluate appropriate scientific evidence for responding to life situations. Students at this level can use well-developed inquiry abilities, link knowledge appropriately and bring critical insights to situations. They can construct explanations based on evidence and arguments that emerge from their critical analysis. In Japan, 17% of students reach this level, which is above the OECD average of 9%.
In comparison, 24% of students in Shanghai-China attain this level, 20% of students in Singapore do so, 19% in Finland do, and 18% of students in New Zealand attain this level.
21.  The proportions of top performers have remained unchanged in mathematics since 2003 and in science since 2006.
In terms of national income level, Japan ranks 17th  among 34 OECD countries on GDP per capita (Table I.1.20 and Figure I.2.1). In fact, only 6% of the variation among OECD countries’ mean scores can be predicted on the basis of their GDP per capita. Japan performs better in reading than would be expected from its level of GDP per capita. While GDP per capita reflects the potential resources available for education in each country, it does not directly measure the financial resources actually invested in education. In a comparison of countries’ average actual spending per student from the age of 6 to the age of 15, Japan ranks 14th among 34 OECD countries. Across OECD countries, expenditure per student explains 9% of the variation in PISA
mean performance between countries (Figure I.2.2). Japan’s deviation upwards from the trend line suggests that Japan performs better than would be expected from its spending on education per student. Italy and Slovenia, which spend similar levels on education per student as Japan,
perform at least 34 score points lower than Japan Japan performs better than would be expected from its spending on education per student. Italy and Slovenia, which spend similar levels on education per student as Japan, perform at least 34 score points lower than Japan (Table I.2.20).
• It is not just the volume of resources that matters but how those resources are invested, and how well countries succeed in directing the money where it can make the most difference. Japan is one of 16 OECD countries in which socio-economically disadvantaged schools have more favourable student-teacher ratios than socio-economically advantaged schools, which implies that students from disadvantaged backgrounds may benefit from considerably more spending per student than the Japanese average (Table II.2.3).In addition, Japan pays teachers comparatively well and provides them with ample time for work other than teaching. While these policies drive costs upward, Japan pays for them with comparatively large class size (Table B7.3 in the 2010 edition of OECD’s Education at a Glance).
• Parents in Japan are better educated  than those in most other countries. Given the close interrelationship between a student’s performance and his or her parents’ level of education (see Volume II of PISA 2009 Results), it is also important to bear in mind the educational attainment of adult populations when comparing the performance of OECD countries, since countries with more highly educated adults are at an advantage over countries in which parents have less education. The percentage of 35-to-44-year-olds who have attained tertiary levels of education, which roughly corresponds to the age group of parents of the 15-year-olds assessed in PISA, is 48% in Japan, which ranks 2nd after Canada in this comparison among the 34 OECD countries
(Table I.2.20).
• The share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in Japan is below average.  Socioeconomic disadvantage and heterogeneity in student populations pose other challenges for teachers and education systems. As shown in Volume II of  PISA 2009 Results, teachers instructing socio-economically disadvantaged children are likely to face greater challenges than those with students from more privileged socio-economic backgrounds. A comparison of the socio-economic background of the most disadvantaged quarter of students puts Japan above the 7 OECD average, while the socio-economic background of the student population as a whole ranks around the OECD average (Table II.3.1).
5  In other words, while the overall socio-economic context of students in Japan is that of a typical OECD country, the proportion of disadvantaged
students in Japan is below that of OECD countries in general.

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