PISA 2012: No gold star for Hungarian education

For those of you who have heard only of the Pisa with its leaning tower, this PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment. It operates under the aegis of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Every three years tests are given to fifteen-year-old students across the globe in reading, mathematics, and science. The news is not good for Hungary and consequently for Rózsa Hoffmann, who is responsible for public education. Népszabadság couldn’t resist the temptation and ran the headline: “‘Here is Rózsa Hoffmann’s report card: Hungarian students’ results declined.”

Three years ago there was some excitement when the PISA results came out since Hungarian students improved considerably in reading. While in 2006 they scored 482, in 2009 they got 494. In math and science, however, there was no appreciable difference between 2006 and 2009.

Of course, when the PISA results came out in 2010 Rózsa Hoffmann deplored the dreadful damage that was done to Hungarian education under the ultra-liberal educational policies of Bálint Magyar and his socialist successor, István Hiller. At that time Hoffmann explained the improvement in reading scores by noting Hungarian teachers’ recognition that understanding written texts must continue through all twelve grades. She also noted that the quality differences between schools were still much greater than in most OECD countries and added that “it is very important to improve the material well being of families, without which the educational results will not get better.” I don’t think I have to remind readers of Hungarian Spectrum that living standards, especially for the poorer strata of society, have in fact dropped markedly since. Most of the families of those children who are having problems in school are poorer and more miserable than ever before.

Zoltán Pokorni, minister of education in the first Orbán government, decided to go further and claim that the 2009 results were due solely to his educational policies. After all, those fifteen-year-old teenagers who took the test began first grade in 2000!  Total nonsense, of course but I guess it was difficult to swallow that, after years of stagnation, the newly introduced educational reforms were slowly showing some results.


The 2012 results are really bad. Hungarian children did worse in all three categories than three years earlier. In reading they dropped by 6 points, in math 13 points, and in science 9 points. By contrast, most of Hungary’s neighbors, with the notable exception of Slovakia, improved in all categories. Austria led the way (up 20 points in reading), and Czech students also showed great progress.

I have no idea what happened in the Slovak school system that may have caused such a steep decline, and I’m not sure how much the present Hungarian administration is responsible for the drop in the Hungarian performance. But the havoc that was wreaked in the field of education–the administrative chaos and constant changes in the curriculum–most likely had a negative effect on the quality of education in general. Also, studies I read on the subject claim that certain programs that were designed with a view to “competence development” were discontinued since Rózsa Hoffmann doesn’t believe in such newfangled ideas.

So, how did Hoffmann handle this situation? Her office placed an announcement on the  website of the Ministry of Human Resources stating that the 2012 PISA results “support the urgent necessity of the renewal of public education.” She naturally tried to minimize the positive changes in 2009, saying that reading skills “improved somewhat” then but in math and science there was no change. (Of course, one could say that at least there was no drop as is the situation now.)

And what is the reason for this bad performance according to Hoffmann? “The majority of the students who took the test began attending school in 2003: the worsening results are the critical consequences of the beginnings of their schooling.” Didn’t we hear that earlier? Of course, we did. Zoltán Pokorni proudly claimed in December 2010 that the good 2009 results were due to the beneficial educational policies of the Orbán government. After all, the students who took the test started grade one in 2000. As if the amount of knowledge at age of fifteen was solely determined by the first two years of school attendance. After the Orbán government lost the elections, in May 2002 Bálint Magyar (SZDSZ) took over the ministry of education. So, in fact, little Pisti or Marika spent only one school year under the watchful eye of Orbán’s ministry of education by then led by József Pálinkás, today president of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Politicians can say the darndest things. Otherwise, in the rest of the announcement she dwells not so much on the 2012 results as on the 2009 ones, which she considers very poor. I might add that 2009 was the only year that Hungary was not under the OECD average.

Scores in reading, math, and science are important indicators of a country’s educational well being, but the percentage of functional illiterates is also a crucial consideration, especially since the European Union’s goal is to reduce their numbers significantly by 2020.  Functional illiteracy in this case means a score below a certain number. The desired percentage would be 15 in all three categories. Right now only four countries in Europe have reached this goal: Finland, Poland, the Netherlands, and Estonia. In Hungary functional illiterates grew by 2.1% in reading, 5.8% in math, and 3.9% in science between 2009 and 2012. Currently Hungary has a functional illiteracy rate of 19.7% in reading, 27.1% in math, and 18% in science. Among the Visegrád countries Poland is doing the best in this respect: in reading 10.6%, in math 14.4%, and in science 13.8%. The whole report can be read here.

Anyone who’s interested in comparisons between individual countries should visit OECD’s website. Countries that scored very poorly in Eastern Europe are Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, but even those that did better, like Hungary, still underperformed globally. Hungarians who have such a low opinion of the educational attainment of American students may find it disturbing that American students actually did a little better in all categories than their Hungarian counterparts. Naturally, American commentators are unhappy. They consider the results disappointing and bemoan the fact that “the U.S. scores were below the average of other countries in all three subject areas.” Yes, and that’s where Hungary is as well. It is useless to deny the fact that Hungarian kids are undereducated and that undereducated kids become undereducated adults. The kind who can easily be duped by unscrupulous populist politicians like Viktor Orbán and his coterie.