13.12.2019 PISA results and the distances in education

The results of the PISA Functional Literacy Test conducted in 2018 will be analyses from different countries and perspectives for a long time. Although highly anticipated, the trend of continued deterioration in Bulgaria's results should undoubtedly be a cause for justifiable concern and an incentive to continue / effectively implement changes in the school education system. The "usual suspects" of Bulgaria's lower performance are young people from ethnic minorities, poor families and small settlements. Are they also the cause of the deterioration of 2018 results compared to previous studies? The answer is "no" and this raises many questions that need to be analyses. In fact, for the three years from 2015 to 2018, functional literacy among young people whose mother language is not Bulgarian, young people from poor families and young people from villages are improving! It remains lower than in other groups, but the results clearly show an improvement in the most vulnerable. The big question remains why, against the background of this improvement, there is a decline in literature among young people with a native Bulgarian language, from richer families, and especially from young people from Sofia…

Any analysis of the latest PISA test results should take into account that they cannot be used as an indicator of how well the changes introduced by the new Preschool and School Education Act are working. They are not an indicator of whether the increase in teachers` salaries has an impact on teaching quality. We have to keep in mind that the tests were taken at the beginning of 2018 and the students included in them are studying under the old school programs. That is to say, for these students, the new educational law was practically not reflected at that time. The potential impact of significantly increased teachers` salaries on the learning process could not be measured by early 2018 - because the more serious increase in the salaries was from the next school year. A topic for a completely different analysis is how much the increase in salaries can be expected to lead to a radical change in the way of teaching. Even if it were (in which I doubt) a serious effect on the PISA results could not be expected. The main reason for this is the delicate difference between the "product" that our education system produces and what the PISA measures. For many years, Bulgarian education has been re-emphasizing the knowledge that students should acquire while PISA measures functional literacy, that is, how much that knowledge had become skills. The new education law and the attempts to change the educational programs have the claim and promise to turn things around and to focus on skills and internalisation of acquired knowledge. However, we are still far from that. And yet in early 2018, such a change was not available at all, especially for students studying under the old curriculum. Whether we can already see change today is a completely different question that is unlikely to please us notably…

The test results can be analyses as an indicator of many other processes related to school education in Bulgaria. The representation of ethnic minority students and the progress of the educational integration process, especially on average, are part of important processes that, although indirectly reflected in PISA results, especially against the background of changes between different tests in recent years. What can be deduced with a relatively high degree of certainty?

The percentage of students with a mother language other than Bulgarian has increased significantly: from 9.1 percent in 2015 to 12.9 percent in 2018. These young people are not so many, but it is remarkable that in three years their number has increased in half. We must emphasize that it is not only Roma students. The question that the young people involved in the assessment answer is about the language in which they communicate in the family. In Bulgaria, apart from Roma, many families speak Turkish and some speak Roma language. On the other hand, most Roma children and young people in the family environment use primarily Bulgarian, and it is very likely that this question has been answered. Therefore, we should not interpret these data in the punctuality, but rather as an indicator of an increase in secondary school students from ethnic minorities, including Roma, without having information about exactly the proportion of Roma students.

We should also point out that in recent years there has indeed been an extremely positive tendency to increase the number of Roma young people in secondary education. Amalipe Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance works with 280 schools across the country. They are an example in this direction. Only 5 years ago, the rate of continuing education after primary education was 39%, and now is over 92%. Indicative is the fact that in over 100 vocational high schools, Roma students are the majority - something that was unthinkable only a decade ago;

There is an improvement in PISA results in 2018 compared to 2015 regarding students for whom the mother language is not Bulgarian. In terms of reading capabilities, the score improved by 8 points and the mathematical proficiency improved by 15 points. There is only a decrease in the natural sciences. That is, the overall devaluation of Bulgaria's performance in 2018 is not due to students with a mother language other than Bulgarian. They improve their performance and also their relative contribution is not that great.


The fact that more and more children from minorities, and exclusively the Roma community, they study in the middle stage and are also improving their educational success is a remarkably positive tendency. It would be pure speculation to consider whether this is the result of the efforts of schools, non-governmental organizations and municipalities for educational integration, whether government policy in this area has any merit, or rather an objective process of increasing the educational level of the Roma community. But the presence of a positive tendency is a real fact.


It should be clearly emphasized that young people with a mother language other than Bulgarian still have lower results compared to other young people. But the difference between the two groups, which remains large and too alarming, is never the less sensitively declining, and while it was almost 100 points in 2015, it is 74 points today. Unfortunately, the decrease in these differences is rather due to the deterioration of the results shown by students in their native Bulgarian language

Students living in small towns of up to 3000 people are also better represented. The improvement is 29 points. Here again, the above applies, namely that village youths continue to perform less well than other youths, but the differences between the groups decrease.


In line with the above mentioned trends, the next one is in line with the above trends, namely, the presentation of students from poor families. One of the important indicators used in PISA is the number of books in the family. This indicator shows not only the social status of the family, but also its overall literacy. Quite expectedly, the results of young people living in families with a small number of books - for example, from 0 to 10 - are significantly worse than the results of those who have more than 200 books at home. But there is also a tendency to narrow the gap. In 2018, young people from families with up to 10 books have increased their scores by 10 points compared to 2015. Unfortunately, in the top category, namely, families with over 200 books, we see a decrease in results, with 27 points

The results of young people in the greatest performing categories are worrying. Students from Sofia and from richer families are again performing better, but there is a decrease compared to 2015. For example, the youth of Sofia shows a decrease of 35 points, which is beyond the statistical error. One can hardly give an easy and unambiguous explanation for this fact. However, given that nearly a quarter of Bulgarian youths study in Sofia and the reduction in this category leads to an overall reduction in national results, a serious analysis is definitely needed, followed by even more serious measures.


The decline in PISA results nationwide was more or less expected and easily explained in view of the late start of real education reforms. At the same time, as a positive trend, we can outline, the better representation of students from the more vulnerable categories, including young people with a mother language other than Bulgarian, young people from small settlements and poorer families. Despite the usual mantra that educational integration is not successful, the results indicate otherwise. There is a positive trend in these categories, which must be strongly reinforced and continued. Investing in better education in these categories has the potential to lead to more sustainable change. At the same time, it is necessary to carefully analyze the underperformance of young people in the so-called highest categories. The negative trend in them can and should be reversed.

Author: Deyan Kolev


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