Low-income students here do better than their peers overseas

Some 6,300 students from all 153 public secondary schools and 376 students from 13 private schools were randomly selected to take part.
Some 6,300 students from all 153 public secondary schools and 376 students from 13 private schools were randomly selected to take part.PHOTO: ST FILE

Students from lower-income homes in Singapore not only do better than their peers overseas but also outperform the average international student, the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study found.

Pisa assessed 4,000 to 8,000 15-year-old students in each country enrolled in formal education, whether full-time or part-time.

The 2018 study released yesterday showed that Singapore students from the bottom 25 per cent of socio-economic status (SES) performed better than the overall OECD average across all income levels. This was true for all three domains of reading, mathematics and science featured in the survey.

They scored 495 in reading, versus an overall OECD average of 487, 520 in mathematics (489) and 501 in science (489).

The study also measured three types of academic resilience among students. It found 47 per cent of Singapore's lower-SES students - up from 43 per cent in 2015 - were "core-skills resilient", which means they attained proficiency of at least level three in the three domains. The OECD score was 23 per cent.

"Level three" indicates "necessary core competencies to participate fully in society", meaning they are equipped to meet real-world demands. The highest level is six.

On "international resilience", which measured their reading scores against others elsewhere, 53 per cent of those from Singapore made the top quarter, compared with 33 per cent of OECD students.

But on "national resilience", which looked at how they fared against top performers in their own countries, only one in 10 of Singapore's disadvantaged students met the mark. This was similar to the performance of OECD students.

In reading, there was a score gap of 104 between the lower-and higher-SES students in Singapore, down from 108 in 2015. In comparison, the OECD score gap in the same domain was 89, up from 86.


The Education Ministry's deputy director-general of education (curriculum) Sng Chern Wei said the gap is a large one as "our high performers do very well in such bench-marking studies". The way to reduce the gap is not to cap the top but to help low-performers level up through schemes such as the Uplifting Pupils in Life and Inspiring Families Taskforce, he said.

National University of Singapore economics lecturer Kelvin Seah said measures to narrow the gap are "unlikely to work overnight". But he added that the findings "bode well... because it indicates that how one performs academically is not rigidly determined by one's SES".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 04, 2019, with the headline 'Low-income students here do better than their peers overseas'. Subscribe