UAE schools improve in maths but lag behind in reading and science, international rankings show

Pisa results show Middle Eastern nations have a long way to go, as China and Singapore excel

Teachers across the country are to sit tests on teaching standards and on their own specialist subject. Delores Johnson / The National
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The UAE has maintained a stable position in global education rankings, with performance in maths improving but progress “flat” in reading and science.

The latest edition of Pisa scores - run by the OECD and published every three years - show that the nation’s 15-year-olds, as well as those across the Middle East, are continuing to be outperformed by their peers in other developed countries.

The UAE achieved better results than most other Middle East nations with pupils assessed last year achieving average scores of 435, in maths, an increase of 7.5 points compared to 2015. The UAE scored 432 in reading, a drop of 1.8, and 434 in science, a fall of 3.1.

Students have great difficulty reading complex digital information, where they have to navigate complexity and ambiguity, discern fact from opinion, or develop their own critical stance

These compare to OECD averages of 489 in both maths and science, and 487 in reading.

The UAE outperformed Jordan, Lebanon, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which took part in Pisa for the first time, across all three subjects. But all Middle East countries performed below the OECD average in all three subjects.

In terms of where the UAE sits internationally, the country fell from 47th to 50th place in maths, despite increasing its score in the subject. In reading, it improved its ranking by two places, to 46th, and in science it fell back from 46th to 49th.

The UAE government said it aims to be among the top 20 countries or PISA scores by 2021, when the next cycle of the assessments will take place.

To meet the target, there will have to be rapid progress, with the OECD report categorising the UAE’s overall trajectory as “stable” in all three subjects over the last decade.

“In mathematics, we are seeing the continuation of a positive trend, here the UAE is broadly on track of achieving its ambitious performance targets,” said Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD.

The rankings show the UAE has work to do to meet its goal of entering the top 20 by 2021. Graphic: The National.
The rankings show the UAE has work to do to meet its goal of entering the top 20 by 2021. Graphic: The National.

“In reading and science, outcomes have remained flat and the UAE needs to reinforce its efforts.

"In particular, students have great difficulty with reading complex digital information, where they have to navigate complexity and ambiguity, discern fact from opinion, or develop their own critical stance.”

Overall, the rankings were dominated by China and Singapore.

Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, which were assessed together, scored 555 in reading, 591 in maths and 590 in science. Pupils in Singapore achieved average scores of 549, 569 and 551 respectively.

--FILE--Young near-sighted Chinese students wearing glasses receive textbooks in the classroom at a primary school ahead of the summer vacation in Boxing county, Binzhou city, east China's Shandong province, 3 July 2014.

The number of Chinese wearing glasses is rising. Most new adoptees are children. In 1970 fewer than a third of 16- to 18-year-olds were deemed to be short-sighted (meaning that distant objects are blurred). Now nearly four-fifths are, and even more in some urban areas. A fifth of these have "high" myopia, that is, anything beyond 16 centimetres is unclear. The fastest increase is among primary school children, over 40% of whom are short-sighted, double the rate in 2000. That compares with less than 10% of this age group in America or Germany. The incidence of myopia is high across East Asia, afflicting 80-90% of urban 18-year-olds in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan. The problem is social rather than genetic. A 2012 study of 15,000 children in the Beijing area found that poor sight was significantly associated with more time spent studying, reading or using electronic devices, along with less time spent outdoors. The biggest factor in short-sightedness is a lack of time spent outdoors. Exposure to daylight helps the retina to release a chemical that slows down an increase in the eye's axial length, which is what most often causes myopia. Schoolchildren in China are often made to take a nap after lunch rather than play outside; they then go home to do far more homework than anywhere outside East Asia. The older children in China are, the more they stay indoors, and not because of the country's notorious pollution.
China excelled in the rankings with pupils shown to be highly adept at maths and science in particular. Zheng xun / Imaginechina

Macao, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei also far exceeded the OECD average.

Other nations to perform strongly included Estonia, Canada, Finland, Ireland and Korea, which achieved above average scores in all three subjects.

In total, around 600,000 pupils, from 79 different countries and territories, were assessed last year under the assessments.

In the UAE, 19,277 pupils took part in the assessments. Pisa includes both public and private schools and is designed to include a representative sample of the school population.

Performance in the UAE in reading was similar to pupils in Romania, Serbia, Uruguay and Costa Rica, the report said. In maths, countries achieving similar results included Albania and Malaysia while in science, comparable countries included Jordan and Moldova.

The UAE’s steady performance overall masked a widening disparity between the top and lowest performing pupils, the report said, with stronger results among the most able being compensated for by drops among the least able.

Differences in learning outcomes among 15-year-olds are "highly unequal" in the UAE, the report said, with Israel, Lebanon and Malta other countries experiencing the same phenomenon.

Concern has previously been raised over standards in UAE schools that charge the lowest fees, which can struggle to attract staff. Rules mean that poorly performing schools have fee increases capped, leading some to claim this leaves them stuck in a "vicious cycle" in which they are unable to raise the funds to make improvements.

Since 2009, the brightest UAE pupils have improved by 8.9 points in reading, 10 in maths and 3 in science, between 2009, the first time the country took part in Pisa, and 2018.

Students from disadvantaged families have generally only one single chance in life, and that is a great teacher and a good school

Meanwhile, performance among the lowest-performing pupils dropped by 8.1 in reading, 3.7 in maths and 6.5 in science over the same period.

The UAE was cited as one of the countries where a widening attainment gap was of particular concern.

“It remains necessary for many countries to promote equity with much greater urgency,” Angel Gurría, the OECD Secretary-General, wrote in the report.

“While students from well-off families will often find a path to success in life, those from disadvantaged families have generally only one single chance in life, and that is a great teacher and a good school.

"If they miss that boat, subsequent education opportunities will tend to reinforce, rather than mitigate, initial differences in learning outcomes.

“Against this background, it is disappointing that in many countries a student’s or school’s post code remains the strongest predictor of their achievement.

“In Argentina, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Peru, the Slovak Republic and the United Arab Emirates, a typical disadvantaged student has less than a one-in-eight chance of attending the same school as high achievers.”