Shambolic public education in Hungary — PISA survey paints grim picture

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results, showing a dramatic decline in the scores of Hungarian teenagers and an especially grim picture of just how poorly children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds fare at school. Every three years, PISA assesses the scholastic performance of 15 year old students in 72 countries, based on results obtained from 500,000 students. Hungarian teenagers fared much worse in the sciences and reading comprehension/literacy than they did in 2012, while math scores were unchanged. Hungary is well below the average of OECD countries in all three categories. Hungary’s PISA score has been declining since 2009, but the current drop is more dramatic than ever before. In the sciences, Hungary went from 494 to 477 points, while in reading comprehension the decline was from 488 to 470.

To put this into perspective:

Average science score: 493 points
Hungary’s science score: 477 points

Average math score: 490 points
Hungary’s math score: 477 points

Average reading score: 493 points
Hungary’s reading score: 470 points

Hungary finds itself in 40th place internationally, out of 70 ranked countries, when it comes to reading comprehension. In comparison, Canada is in 2nd place. The United Kingdom is in 21st place and the United States is 24th. Regionally, Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia all performed better than Hungary.

More troubling for Hungary, however, is that unlike in most OECD countries, Hungarian public education has completely failed to integrate children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Schools with a higher concentration of children from disadvantaged backgrounds fared much worse than schools where students come from more affluent families. The gap between these two is among the largest of OECD countries. When asked to comment, the Ministry of Human Capacities, which oversees public education, highlighted that a child’s socio-economic background and the proportion of poorer students, played a major role in how different schools performed. The Ministry also claims that some student may not have been accustomed to taking these tests digitally, which may partially explain the low scores compared to other OECD countries.

The opposition Hungarian Socialist Party (MSZP) is calling on Minister Zoltán Balog to resign over the disastrous results. “The result represents the total bankruptcy of the government’s dumbed down educational policies,” said Ágnes Kunhalmi, an MSZP MP who chairs Parliament’s Cultural Affairs Committee.

Hungarian teachers protest the Orbán government's education policies in Budapest earlier this year. The banner reads: I would teach. The future of our children is at stake." Photo: Népszava

Hungarian teachers protest the Orbán government’s education policies in Budapest earlier this year. The banner reads: “I would teach. The future of our children is at stake.” Photo: Népszava

The Orbán government is spending less on public education than almost any other developed state–and it is starting to show. For instance, in 2013 (the most recent year with comprehensive data on this subject) the government spent only 76% on public education of what it had spent in 2008.  According to researcher Péter Radó, Hungarians have known since 2000, that students are performing below the average of developed countries. The scores in the following decade stagnated, but then showed signs of improvement in reading comprehension in 2009. In 2012, Hungary’s scores dropped and part of the reason may have been the on-going economic impact of the 2008 financial crisis and growing poverty in Hungary. But the other reason was the fact that Fidesz, since returning to power in 2010, often communicated in a way that downplayed the importance of education, especially for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

According to Mr. Radó, each year public education in Hungary produces an additional 25,000 young adults who are functionally illiterate. Some 26,000 young Hungarians leave school every year without having the most basic math skills needed in everyday adult life. But perhaps most alarming: almost one third of 15 year old boys in Hungary (32%) are functionally illiterate. Every year, public education in Hungary produces over 17,000 young adults who are unemployable.

It is abundantly clear that Fidesz, since coming to power in 2010, has denigrated a system of public education that had already been struggling. The fact that Minister of the Prime Minister’s Office János Lázár recently said that “the most that can be given to students is to raise them as good Christians and good Hungarians” is a stark reminder of how one of the government’s most powerful ministers sees the state’s role in public education.


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