I thank the Chairman for the invitation to address the committee on the outcomes of the OECD's programme for international student assessment, PISA, 2009. Dr. Archer of the Educational Research Centre, ERC, which administers PISA on behalf of the Department of Education and Skills, has outlined the key findings of the 2009 cycle of PISA tests in Ireland. While lrish students achieved mixed outcomes across the three domains of reading, maths and science, the findings are very disappointing. The results have been and continue to be treated as a matter of serious concern by the Department.
PISA is an important collaborative international research project that allows us to compare the performance of our students with those of other countries in reading, mathematics and science. PISA does not purport to measure the broad range of outcomes that we expect schools to develop in our young people. PISA cannot measure skills such as social skills or the ability to learn quickly, or higher order skills such as the ability to manage and process information. It is also important to bear in mind that it does not directly measure what is taught in schools. For example, some students who take the PISA science test do not study science in school. Nevertheless, the Department believes strongly that PISA provides a valuable measure of students' achievement in the core competence of reading and in some important aspects of mathematics and science - all of which are among the essential skills young people will require for employment and participation in society.
Our first task in the Department has been to understand as fully as possible how the performance of Irish students in reading and mathematics had declined on the PISA tests when previous cohorts of Irish students had recorded very high achievement scores in reading and had performed at the OECD average in mathematics. Few educational systems have ever experienced actual changes in educational standards of the scale reported for Ireland by PISA 2009 and we sought to understand how the test scores could have declined. When we first became aware of some of the preliminary PISA results in July 2010, we sought and received co-operation from the OECD which allowed the ERC access to OECD databases at an earlier than normal stage. This allowed us to commission the ERC to undertake a detailed review of the data. We were also able to have a second independent review completed by Statistics Canada, a leading international research agency.
The work of the ERC and Statistics Canada has shown that a proportion of the decline in test scores may be explained by changes in the populations of students taking the tests. The work of the ERC and Statistics Canada has also made us aware of the caution with which we must treat the scores of students on the PISA tests because of significant limitations in the design and underlying methodology used within PISA. Following their review of the Irish data, the Canadian and Irish experts have concluded that the techniques used by PISA "have over-estimated the size of the decline [in achievement in Ireland]." As Dr. Archer indicated, these experts have cautioned against reading too much into one single set of PISA outcomes and have advised that it is difficult to be certain that there is an underlying real decline in standards over time without further evidence. As Dr Archer has stated, other evidence regarding standards in literacy and numeracy among Irish students does not corroborate the decline in standards suggested by PISA 2009. Nevertheless, the Department is of the view that it would be unwise to ignore the possibility that there may have been some decline in actual standards of literacy and numeracy among Irish students even if not of the scale indicated by the PISA results.
It is also the case that despite the high performance of Irish students on previous international surveys, we have had concerns for some time about achievement in reading for particular groups of students and more generally about achievement in mathematics. We have had concerns arising from inspections and national assessments about reading standards among pupils in areas of concentrated disadvantage and among boys in particular.
Policy initiatives such as DEIS, the Department's action plan for educational disadvantage, have specifically targeted issues such as school attendance, literacy and numeracy, and home-school links among this group. Early evidence from evaluations of DEIS have shown that primary schools are having success in raising standards in reading to some extent and, to a lesser extent, in mathematics. Evidence from previous international surveys, school inspections and the State examinations has pointed to weaknesses in the teaching of mathematics generally. Project Maths, the initiative to reform the teaching and assessment of mathematics at post-primary level, has been specifically designed to tackle these issues.
Irrespective of the evidence from the outcomes of PISA 2009, we have to take every action possible to use the resources at our disposal to secure better outcomes in reading, maths and other skills for young people. The quality of teachers' work is critical in improving teaching and learning. The establishment of the Teaching Council in 2006 and the work it has commenced on reviewing and accrediting teacher education programmes is playing an important role in such improvement. So, too, will the national induction programme, launched in May 2010 and available to all newly qualified teachers since October last.
The launch of Better Literacy and Numeracy for Young People, a national plan for improving literacy and numeracy in schools, is designed to effect a more intensive focus on a range of co-ordinated measures to improve standards in schools. The plan sets concrete and measurable targets for improvement. It will bring major changes to how primary and post-primary teachers are educated. It sees teachers as having a responsibility to maintain and update their professional skills, just as we expect this of medical and other professionals. The plan sets out how literacy and numeracy will be prioritised in the curricula at early childhood, primary and post-primary levels.
The plan places an emphasis on the outcomes that we need to achieve for learners. It sets out very significantly improved arrangements for assessing pupils' progress at primary and post-primary levels and for reporting and tracking this progress to parents, at school level and nationally. All of these data will be important in supporting school self-evaluation, the external evaluations undertaken by the inspectorate, and general policy development and monitoring.
In addition, the Department will continue to use national and international evaluations to monitor the achievement of Irish students and improve provision. A new set of national assessments in reading and mathematics at primary level, the first round, was published last year. We look forward to receiving further analysis of the PISA 2009 outcomes from the ERC and the results that Irish students will have achieved on the PISA 2009 computer-based literacy tests in June 2011. Ireland joined the PIRLS and TIMSS international tests of literacy and numeracy for primary-school pupils in 2010. In recent years, we have not had a history of participating in the primary ones. Pilot testing was completed in spring 2010 and the full tests will be administered in schools in 2011.
Given the economic climate in which we work, the implementation of the national literacy and numeracy plan will mean re-prioritising spending and placing greater emphasis on improving literacy and numeracy over other desirable but ultimately less vital issues. Submissions from the public and interested groups on the contents of the plan have been sought before the end of January. It is for the committee to consider whether it would be appropriate for it to have discussions or receive submissions. We are happy to engage with it in the process, in whatever way it deems appropriate. I and my colleagues are happy to answer any queries that committee members may have. We have given a detailed outline of some of the issues that arise but if facts other than those we have to hand today are required, we will be happy to provide them subsequently.