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What the new Pisa results reveal about schools in Austria

Amanda Previdelli
Amanda Previdelli - [email protected]
What the new Pisa results reveal about schools in Austria
A public school in Vienna, Austria.(Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

The results of the Pisa international examination of school pupils - the first one since the end of the coronavirus pandemic - are out and causing a furore in Austria.

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The latest Pisa study, conducted after the global disruptions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, revealed a significant downturn in overall results across the OECD compared to previous assessments, as reported.

Austria witnessed a marked decrease in maths performance, while reading scores exhibited no statistically significant decline, and the science results remained relatively stable.

The Pisa 2022 survey encompassed around 690,000 15 and 16-year-old students worldwide, with over 6,200 participants from more than 300 Austrian schools.

Test results

Regarding mathematics, the OECD's average score declined from 489 points in 2018 to 472. Traditionally, previous Pisa studies had shown fluctuations in math scores within a narrow range of about four points compared to earlier evaluations.

Though Austria's drop in mathematics scores was lower than the OECD average, it still decreased by twelve points—from 499 to 487.  Education Minister Martin Polaschek expressed satisfaction, highlighting Austria's relatively better resilience to the pandemic than many other countries. However, critics have pointed to the steep drop in math scores, and Austrian media has dissected the scores of students with different backgrounds.

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Inequality in schools

In Austria, socio-economically advantaged students (the top 25 percent regarding socio-economic status) outperformed disadvantaged students (the bottom 25 percent) by 106 score points in mathematics. The Pisa study showed that this is larger than the average difference between the two groups (93 score points) across OECD countries.

Christiane Spiel an education expert told broadcaster ORF, it is "well known" that the background of children and young people in Austria plays a role in their educational success. "It is an ongoing research topic," she said.

She added that the coronavirus pandemic and the school closures have widened the gap even further in Austria, as many families did not have a digital device at the start of the pandemic and struggled with distance learning. With some parents losing their jobs during the crisis, the hardship worsened.

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Even without the pandemic the divisions and educational inequality which privilege some and make it harder for socio-economically disadvantaged students continue affecting their school results. 

It gets more complex as the Pisa study showed that "immigrant students" - those whose parents were born in a country other than that where the student took the test -  had poorer results. In Mathematics, they scored 58 points lower than their peers with parents born in Austria. 

However, ORF pointed out that almost half of these students come from families with "particularly limited resources", and three-quarters said German was not spoken at home.

READ ALSO: Four things foreigners in Austria need to know about the education system

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Increase in immigrant students

The PISA exam also revealed a jump in the number of immigrant students, both first (born abroad) and second (born in Austria to parents born abroad) generation. In 2022, the share of immigrant students was 27 percent, while ten years before it had been 16 percent.

In 2022, 10 percent of 15-year-old students were first-generation immigrants, meaning they were born in another country/economy, and their families moved to Austria only recently.

Among these first-generation immigrant students, 28 percent arrived in Austria at or before age 5; 20 percent arrived after age 12 and after completing the elementary grades in another education system.

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The Austrian school system

Austria also has a highly fragmented school system. Fairly early on, students and their parents need to decide which type of school they will enrol in. Some will move on to a more technical school, and others to schooling that eventually leads to university degrees. 

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According to Austria's National Education Report, the probability of transferring to an AHS (more academic) school after elementary school increases if parents have an academic degree. Additionally, around two-thirds of the decision to attend an AHS can be explained by "non-performance-related" factors, particularly family background.

Despite exhibiting academic solid abilities, children from underprivileged educational backgrounds often opt for schools that might not fully support their potential. According to Spiel, children require a sense of accomplishment, independence, and social inclusion.

"The question is: how can we meet the basic needs of pupils?" she said.

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