IRISH 15-year-olds have turned in better performances than they did three years ago in international tests in science, reading and maths – but Asian countries outperform the rest of the world.
Science is the subject where Irish students have made the most improvement, moving up five places to ninth out of 34 countries in the developed world and significantly above average.
Irish students are among the best in the world in reading, and are significantly above average in science and maths.
Ireland has recovered from a disappointing showing in the same assessment in 2009, which was blamed on a number of factors, including student fatigue at a time when they were also sitting a number of other tests.
The negative publicity surrounding those findings is credited with creating a greater awareness of the 2012 test – which was taken by students in a representative sample of 182 schools .
The OECD PISA (Programme for International Assessment) is a three-yearly comparison of student performance in key subjects across up to 65 countries, including 34 in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development).
The results of PISA 2012 are based on tests done last year by more than 510,000 students internationally, including about 5,000 in Ireland.
The purpose of PISA is to measure how well 15-year-olds are prepared to meet the challenges they face in life, including education, and the results are keenly watched by key decision makers, such as multi-national boards selecting where to create jobs.
After general dismay in Ireland in 2009, the 2012 results have been widely welcomed, but Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and employers have cautioned that there is no room for complacency.
One of the encouraging findings for Ireland is that a lower proportion of pupils are performing at the lowest levels in maths, science and reading, although there are also relatively few high performers in maths. The dramatic improvement in the Irish science score is attributed to the introduction of the subject in primary schools in 1999 and changes to the Junior Cert syllabus in 2003.
The main focus of PISA 2012 was maths, proficiency in which is a strong predictor of positive outcomes for young adults.
In maths, Ireland is now ranked significantly above the OECD average, placed 13th out of 34 OECD countries and 20th out of 65 countries.
But, while Ireland's maths results are above the OECD average for the first time, its score has not changed significantly since 2003.
Mr Quinn admitted that a small decline in the average score across the OECD countries between 2009 and 2012 "flattered Ireland".
Irish teenagers are above average in most maths areas, but continue to have a weakness in space and shape, which covers algebra, geometry and spatial reasoning.
In reading, Irish students are now ranked fourth out of 34.
In both science and reading, Ireland scores well at all levels, with fewer students performing at the lowest reading level, but more performing at the highest standards.
The findings also give insights into factors that contribute to better or worse performances. Students who attend fee-paying schools tend to do better, and so do those who work less than eight hours a week during term, who attended pre-school and whose school is not in a disadvantaged area.
A spokesperson for the American Chamber, which represents US multinationals in Ireland, said PISA was a key international benchmark on the output of national education systems, and the fact that Ireland had improved across its three key metrics was to be welcomed.
"One of the key attributes that has continued to attract strong levels of investment into Ireland in recent years is the young and well-educated population," the spokesperson said.
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