International study: 40% of Bulgarian ninth-graders functionally illiterate in science, maths and reading

A disturbing picture of Bulgaria’s education system has again emerged with the latest international PISA survey, showing that about 40 per cent of Bulgarian ninth-graders are functionally illiterate in science, mathematics and reading.

The picture, in the 2015 survey, was similar to that portrayed in the 2006 survey.

In all three cases, Bulgarian 15-year-olds ranked below the OECD average. The only difference was that while Bulgaria’s scores in science and reading were largely unchanged, there had been some improvement in the mathematics performance since 2006.

Bulgaria was in 45th place among 72 countries in ninth-graders’ performance in the science tests. Science was the particular focus of the PISA study covering 2015.

The Bulgarian part of the study was done in spring 2015 and involved 6300 Bulgarian students aged 15.

They had two hours to complete a computer-based test in science, mathematics, reading and a module “solving problems in cooperation”.

The survey found that 37.9 per cent of Bulgarian youths do not meet the level of functional literacy in the sciences. This does not mean that they cannot read and write, but they cannot comprehend the material, and that they cannot handle data tables and charts. By comparison, in 2006 this percentage was 42.6 per cent.

The PISA survey found that of the participating students, 41.5 per cent of ninth-grade pupils were functionally illiterate in reading and 42 per cent functionally illiterate in mathematics.

A mere 2.9 per cent of Bulgarian 15-year-olds could deal with the most difficult tasks put in the texts. For OECD countries, the average rate on this indicator was 7.8 per cent.

Singapore outperformed the rest of the world in the OECD’s latest PISA survey, which evaluates the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems. The top OECD countries were Japan, Estonia, Finland and Canada.

While spending per student in primary and secondary education increased by almost 20 per cent since 2006 in OECD countries alone, only 12 of the 72 countries and economies assessed in PISA have seen their science performance improve over this period. These include high-performing education systems, such as Singapore and Macao (China), and low-performers, such as Peru and Colombia.

“A decade of scientific breakthroughs has failed to translate into breakthroughs in science performance in schools,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, launching the report in London. “Every country has room for improvement, even the top performers. With high levels of youth unemployment, rising inequality, a significant gender gap, and an urgent need to boost inclusive growth in many countries, more must be done to ensure every child has the best education possible.”

About one in 10 students across OECD countries, and one in four in Singapore, perform at the highest level in science. Across the OECD, more than one in five students falls short of baseline proficiency: only in Canada, Estonia, Finland, Hong Kong (China), Japan, Macao (China), Singapore and Viet Nam do at least nine out of ten 15-year-old students master the basics that every student should know before leaving school.

Canada, Denmark, Estonia, Hong Kong (China) and Macao (China) achieve both high standards of excellence overall and equity in education outcomes.  A number of countries have improved equity, especially the United States. But in Australia, Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Hungary, New Zealand and the Slovak Republic, the share of students performing at the highest levels fell at the same time as the share of low performers rose.

In Bulgaria, Education Minister Meglena Kouneva – a member of Boiko Borissov’s government that has resigned but that remains in office pending the emergence of a new government – said; “I will not make excuses and say that the study was done before we (her and her deputy minister Deyan Stamatov) took office because for me all children, no matter when the study was done, regardless of who the minister was, are the responsibility of our state.

“That means if we start making excuses, we prolong the problem. We need to say as clearly and distinctly as possible that to the extent it depends on me, I will take, to the end of the term in office, all steps necessary to eradicate this problem”.

Kouneva said that the Education Ministry was taking specific steps to overcome deficits in functional literacy support for students lagging behind, updating curricula and training of teachers.

The Education Ministry noted that one of the most important lessons from all the countries surveyed was that the family and social environment had a huge impact on the results.

In Bulgaria, 59 per cent of students from poor families and those for whom Bulgaria was not their mother tongue had lower achievements.

“The Ministry of Education and Science cannot change the family environment, but it can, must and will act to provide conditions so that the family environment is not the only determinant of the pupils’ results,” Kouneva said.

She said that the ministry would focus on supporting children and students with difficulties in increasing their interest in school and developing their critical thinking.

Kouneva said that the new curriculum currently being developed and discussed would be “more modern, more practically-orientated and with more time for exercises.

For these programmes to be viable and of proper quality, “we have been putting the teacher and the teacher’s qualifications at the centre of our efforts,” she said.

Stamatov said that pupils experiencing educational difficulties would be able to catch up through a programme called “your time” through which methodological support would be provided to children with learning deficits.

This was the purpose of the compulsory pre-school education, Stamatov said.

He said that it was unequivocal from the report that attendance at kindergarten, especially for children from poor families and those that did not have Bulgarian as their mother tongue had direct relevance to their results in the future.

(Photo: ralaenin/




The Sofia Globe staff

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