A few weeks ago, the results of the Programme for International Assessment (Pisa) for 2012 were released. ‘Pisa’ is a standardised test given to 15-year-old students to evaluate their knowledge and skills in Math, Reading and Science. It is conducted every three years. In the latest round, 500,000 students took part in 65 countries, including four Arab ones (the UAE, Qatar, Jordan and Tunisia) and most of the developed world.

A number of interesting trends were observed and analysts have been busy trying to answer several key questions, such as: Have recent efforts by some developing countries been paying off; have earlier conclusions regarding the success of certain educational systems (particularly the Finnish one) been confirmed; does schooling time have an effect on test scores; do we see any significant gender differences in performance in Math, Science or Reading; etc. In Pisa 2012, the excellent performance of far-eastern students was more stunning than ever. Students from Shanghai, China (considered a separate group), outperformed everyone else in each category by what was the equivalent of three years of schooling! Behind them were children from Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Macau and Japan. And completing the top-ten list were three European countries: Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Finland, confirming earlier worrisome signs, dropped from third overall in 2009 to 12th in 2012. Other Scandinavian countries also performed badly in the latest round of tests: Sweden dropped from 21 to 38. Other countries, however, showed that their efforts over the past several years were paying off: Poland, in particular, moved from 17 to 14, with its students improving their scores from 500 to about 520 on an average.

In the Arab world, Qatar saw its scores improve slightly; Tunisia’s and Jordan’s results were essentially unchanged. The UAE, while still faring far better than its Arab brethren states, actually saw its scores drop by about 15 points, on average.

Critics were quick to remark that some educational systems know how to prepare their children for tests and there is a world of difference between acquiring skills that allow you to score well and getting a good well-rounded education. Indeed, it was pointed out that while Korean students excel at answering Math, Science and reading-comprehension questions, they are the unhappiest pupils in school. Conversely, Indonesia and Peru are at the bottom of the Pisa table, but they have the greatest numbers of happy school children. Of course, the goal of an educational system is not to make children happy; giving them chocolate and fun games every day would easily achieve that. The goal is to raise them as well-rounded youngsters. And indeed, improvements in class behaviour were found worldwide over the past three years. What about gross domestic product (GDP) per capita and state spending on education; how do these correlate with test scores? There seems to be a correlation, but it is not very strong: Only about 21 per cent of the variations in scores could be attributed to GDP per capita, while state spending accounted for about 30 per cent of the variations in Math scores, which the report considers as “a strong predictor” of success later at university education and career in various fields.

Finally, gender difference (always a sensitive issue) was looked at in the test-score data. Boys outscored girls in Math in 37 countries (out of 65), while girls did better in only five countries. However, the differences were judged to be small, amounting to more than half a year in only six cases. In reading comprehension, on the other hand, girls generally outperformed boys and the gap indeed widened in 11 countries. In Science, there was little gender difference, except in Japan, Spain and Colombia, which did not use to have such an effect.

In most of the Arab world, however, girls largely outperformed boys in every subject. The report attributes any gender differences to an interplay of motivation and confidence. The more girls feel pushed to perform, for various social reasons, the more they will study; the more they feel confident that they can master the subject (Math in particular), the higher they will score.

So what conclusions can we draw from all this?

First, one must be careful not to draw hasty conclusions from short-time variations. Secondly, one must resist adopting or copying one educational system or another: One year it is the Finnish miracle, another year it is the Chinese recipe.

There is no alternative to hard work at school, by both students and teachers. Improved resources (good textbooks, better labs, more computers and software) will lead to better educational attainments — over time. Most importantly, we need to impart to children the desire to learn and the confidence to succeed.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor and associate dean at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/@NidhalGuessoum.