SINGAPORE - Singapore's 15-year-olds emerged among the top performers last year in an international benchmarking study testing how well they apply knowledge and skills, and solve problems.
The Republic slipped from its previous No. 1 position in 2015, and was ranked second in the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), a study done every three years by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Singapore came in second place in all three subjects covered in the study - mathematics, science and reading - losing out to China, which topped the charts. In 2015, China was not part of the top five scorers.
Macau was ranked third in all three categories, followed by Hong Kong in fourth place for reading and mathematics. Estonia, another top performer, was fourth in science and fifth in reading.
Reading was the main focus of Pisa 2018, which was released on Tuesday (Dec 3) and Singapore students showed significantly better literacy skills compared to 2015.
They had higher scores than the OECD average in higher-order reading processes like evaluating content, assessing credibility and differentiating between fact and opinion.
The Ministry of Education (MOE) attributed the improvement in reading to English language curricula in primary and secondary schools that hones critical reading skills across a range of texts, as well as more students from English-speaking homes. This went up from 49 per cent in 2015 to 57 per cent last year, Pisa's student questionnaire showed.
Last year was the fourth time that Singapore took part in Pisa, with the first in 2009. The study, which was conducted last year, involved about 600,000 students from 79 countries and economies.
National Institute of Education don Jason Tan said that competing demands for students' time due to the rise of smartphones and social media play a key part in the drop in enjoyment of reading as a hobby.
"This whole business of non-stop Instagram and Twitter is much more attractive because it's interactive... compared to reading traditional print books that is a much more solitary activity," he said.
In Singapore, 6,676 teens, most of whom were in their Secondary 4 year, were randomly selected to join the test. The sample, which is representative of the 15-year-old student population here, came from all 153 public secondary schools and 13 private schools, which include international schools and religious schools.
Mr Sng Chern Wei, MOE's deputy director-general of education (curriculum), said on Tuesday (Dec 3): "We are pretty happy with the 2018 Pisa findings because it shows that our students are equipped with the critical skills and the resilience to cope with the challenges of a rapidly changing world. In particular, our students have maintained a very strong performance in reading, math and science in the 2018 study."
On losing its top spot to China, Mr Sng said: "We are happy that China is doing well. We didn't take part in Pisa to try to beat every country. We take part in Pisa to learn important areas for improvement for ourselves. And when other countries do well, we will continue to learn from them and try to make the education experience and learning journey, a more positive one and a more effective one for our students."
He said that the Pisa results were a useful reference for the ministry as it developed education policies and programmes, and it would look into trying to improve in areas found lacking in the study.
These included the high proportion of students in Singapore who expressed concern about failure, as well as a decline in teenagers enjoying reading, whether offline or online.
Similar to their international counterparts, Singapore teenagers said they did not like reading as a hobby or only read to get information that they needed. For example, 49 per cent of Singapore students said reading was a hobby, down from 54 per cent in 2009. In addition, 46 per cent said they read only if they had to, up from 35 per cent in 2009.
The latest Pisa cycle also showed that Singapore continued to have high proportions of students who did well - with the second-highest percentage of all-rounders - and low proportions of low performers.
In reading, for instance, 26 per cent of students in Singapore were top performers. For mathematics and science, the figures were 37 per cent and 21 per cent respectively. The OECD average for top performers in the three domains ranged from 7 per cent to 11 per cent.
Similarly, Singapore had fewer students who were low performers in reading at 11 per cent or about half of the OECD average of 23 per cent. The Republic also had markedly lower proportions of low performers in mathematics and science, at 7 and 9 per cent respectively.
Commenting on the Pisa results, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said in a Facebook post on Tuesday: "We are particularly happy that our students, including those from less well-off homes, continue to do well."
He noted that doing well in international rankings is not Singapore's end goal.
"But such benchmarking is useful to gauge where we stand internationally, and to reflect on where we can improve, such as making education more holistic, inculcating greater joy for learning, and creating an environment where failure is more accepted."