PISA Study: Good results in reading

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15-year-olds perform at high levels in reading, mathematics and natural sciences

15-year-old secondary school students in Germany are good at comprehending, using and evaluating texts. According to the most recent PISA study, their skill levels in reading are higher than the average scores of youth in other OECD nations. German results are also good in mathematics and natural sciences. However, the share of youth at non-university track schools with very low performance in all skill areas has grown.

In spring 2018, the seventh "Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)" study tested the skills of approximately 5,500 15-year-old secondary school students in Germany at approximately 220 schools covering all educational courses (both pre-university tracks ("Gymnasium") and non-university tracks). Teachers and parents were also included in the survey. Approximately 600,000 15-year-olds participated in 79 countries around the world, including the 37 member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which coordinated the study.

Every three years the representative PISA study assesses the ability to apply basic reading, mathematics and natural science skills in everyday situations among youth close to completing their obligatory school programs. This year’s focus was on reading skills, covering the ability to comprehend, use and evaluate texts and to reflect on their meaning. For the first time the study tested the ability to acquire information by navigating through web pages, to assess the credibility of texts and to reconcile contradictory information from multiple text sources.

Secondary school students in Germany score higher on reading skills (498 points) than the average for 15-year-olds in OECD countries (487 points). This places Germany in a larger group of countries with similar performance levels that includes for example France, the United Kingdom, the USA and Japan. In seven OECD nations, including Estonia, Canada, Finland and Poland the youth tested showed significantly better performance (523 - 506 points).

The results achieved by the 15-year-olds in Germany are similar to those of 2009, the last time the PISA study focused on reading. Compared to the first PISA study conducted in 2000, the results of the 2009 test had improved significantly.

The share of secondary school students who can read especially well (11 %) has increased in Germany since 2009 and is above the OECD average. However, the share of particularly weak readers is also exceptionally high (21 %), especially in comparison to countries whose overall results are similar to Germany’s. At non-university-track schools this rate has risen to 29 % since 2009.

"The good news is that the majority of youth in Germany have high reading skills, including the ability to find and evaluate relevant information in the Internet. A look at other countries shows that maintaining such a positive skill level is hardly to be taken for granted," says Prof. Kristina Reiss of the Center for International Student Assessment (ZIB) at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), which leads the German part of the PISA study. In addition to TUM, the Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education (DIPF) and the Leibniz Institute for Science and Mathematics Education (IPN) are also active in the ZIB.

"The bad news is that one fifth of the 15-year-olds are barely able to grasp and reflect on the meaning of texts. This clearly calls for action. Educational research has shown that it is particularly effective to provide children with uninterrupted support in reading skills from preschool until the end of their schooling. In spite of all efforts to the contrary, this apparently is still too rarely the case."

The link between the social background of youth and their reading abilities is particularly pronounced in Germany. This shows in a higher percentage of 15-year-olds from families with low levels of both education and economic prosperity having poor reading skills.

There has been no significant change in the level of reading skills among students with immigrant backgrounds since 2009. These students still achieve poorer results than youth without immigrant backgrounds (472 / 524 points). In Germany, an immigrant background is more closely linked with social status than in other countries.

15-year-olds in Germany read less and don’t enjoy reading as much as the average for OECD youth. More than half of the students in the German part of the study indicated that the primary reason they read was to find necessary information. Only about a fourth listed reading among their favorite hobbies. Levels of reading motivation and the amounts read have dropped since 2009, both in Germany and on average across the OECD.

In Germany, remedial instruction for youth with a native language other than German is more common than in 2009 and is more frequently offered than the international average. Remedial reading instruction for all students outside of regular lessons is more common at secondary grammar schools ("Gymnasium") than at non-university track schools. German schools make relatively little classroom use of digital media when teaching the local national language, with the level even lower at university-track secondary schools than at other schools.

As is the case with reading, Germany’s youth are more competent in mathematics (500 points) than the average 15-year-olds in the OECD countries (489 points), although they are not among top performers. Performance, however, has declined compared to the 2012 PISA study, the last time the study focused on mathematics (514 points). The share of secondary school students with especially low skill levels has grown (to 21 %), reaching even 30 % at non-university track schools.

In the natural sciences, performance by 15-year-olds (503 points) corresponds to the results of the 2015 PISA test, the last time the study focused on this skill area. Here, Germany is once again above the OECD average (489 points). As with reading and mathematics, the share of poorly performing secondary school students is around one fifth. This share has not grown significantly overall, but has grown at non-university track schools, reaching 27 %.

As in all other countries participating in the PISA study, girls in Germany outperform boys when it comes to reading. However, the difference is smaller than the OECD average (26 / 30 point difference) and is significantly smaller than was the case in 2009 (a difference of 40 points). The share of boys with high reading performance levels has doubled.

Performance levels for boys in mathematics and the natural sciences have dropped compared to the respective 2012 and 2015 levels. As a result, the margin by which boys outperform girls in mathematics is smaller, with youth of both genders now performing at equal skill levels in natural sciences.

Kristina Reiss, Mirjam Weis, Eckhard Klieme, Olaf Köller (2019). PISA 2018. Grundbildung im internationalen Vergleich. Münster: Waxmann.

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