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Following the positive evolution of the country in the PISA assessments, the Director of Education and Skills of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who is in charge of these tests, described Portugal as the «most successful case». With the results now known from 2018, does the country still deserve the title?

Portugal has been participating in international studies, led by organisations such as the OECD, that assess reading, maths and science literacy, namely the PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS.

These large-scale international studies generate indicators on the knowledge and skills acquired by students from different education systems, making it possible to compare the participating countries/regions based on variables that take account, among others, of the school settings (education systems, schools and teachers) and the socio-economic status and background of the participating students.

These studies assess different skills and knowledge through the application of standardised tests to large-scale samples, which appropriately represent the target population of the different participating countries/regions. Portugal has participated in all major international large-scale assessment studies, namely the TIMSS since 1995, the PISA since 2000 and the PIRLS since 2011. 

Portugal’s improvement in the PISA results represents a gain nearly equivalent to one year of school

The PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is conducted every three years by the OECD since 2000. It assesses whether 15-year-old students (in any school year and under any training method, who are attending, at least, the 7th grade, or an equivalent level) can use reading, science and maths knowledge, acquired throughout their schooling years, to solve daily problems and play an active role in modern societies. The programme does not follow a specific curricular matrix; instead, it assesses the extent to which students who are about to complete compulsory education (in most participating countries/regions), are well prepared to be active citizens. 

Portugal has participated in all PISA assessments. In the first edition, the Portuguese students ranked third to last among the 30 participating countries/regions. Since then, the results have been progressing positively in PISA’s major domains (maths, reading and sciences). For the first time in 2015, the country’s reading and sciences results were significantly above the OECD average, while the maths results were within the OECD average. In 2018, Portuguese students mantained the positive trend, with reading five points above the OECD average (492 vs. 487) and three points above the OECD average in mathematics and science (492 vs. 489).

The positive evolution of Portugal (an average of +2.4 PISA points per year, which corresponds to a gain nearly equivalent to one year of school on the PISA scale) is particularly relevant when compared with the evolution of other OECD member countries in the same period (an average of -0.5 PISA points per year)1. Portugal is also one of the UE countries with a more significant decline in the percentage of students without basic reading, maths and science skills, as defined by PISA, and a substantial increase in the percentage of students with advanced literacy skills. According to the OECD Director of Education and Skills, Andreas Schleicher, «Portugal is Europe’s most successful case in the PISA study»2. However, the 2018 figures indicate a setback for the level of students in the 2012 PISA edition.

Still, of the 79 educational systems that participated in PISA in 2018, only seven (Albania, Colombia, Macau, Republic of Moldova, Peru, Portugal and Qatar) registered a significant improvement in their students' performance simultaneously reading, math and science in the history of PISA. Of these seven, only one is a member of the OECD: Portugal.

Portugal scored above the international average and higher than Finland in TIMSS.

The TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) was the first large-scale international assessment study in which Portugal has participated. The TIMSS is conducted every four years by the IEA (International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement) since 1995.

The study assesses the mathematical and scientific literacy of students from Grades 4 to 8. The tests follow a standard curricular matrix, designed by IEA’s experts, which defines the cognitive processes and the contents of maths and (earth and life) sciences that students should master between the 4th and the 8th grade.

In the first edition, Portugal ranked third to last among the 26 participating countries/regions. The validity of the students’ results was questioned3, and Portugal would not participate in TIMSS until 2011. In the 6th edition (2015), the Portuguese 4th-graders scored an average of 541 points, significantly above the international average (500 points), and above countries that have set benchmarks of education excellence, such as Finland4. The evolution of the Portuguese students’ in the domain of sciences, however, was not as positive, with a drop of 14 points in the average scores between 2011 and 2015.

The best results in the first edition, the worst results in the last one

The PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) is a study conducted by the IEA to assess the reading literacy of 4th-grade students. The test follows a curricular matrix that IEA’s experts deem appropriate for 4th-graders, taking into account the purposes of reading (learning and leisure) for this age group. The PIRLS is conducted every five years since 2001. Portugal has only participated in the 2011 and 2016 editions. In 2011, Portugal scored 541 points, which was significantly above the international average (500 points). However, in the 2016 edition, the country’s average score had a significant drop of 13 points5.

In 2016, Portugal was one of the 14 pioneering countries participating in the ePIRLS, a ground-breaking study on digital reading literacy, conducted in a Web environment and aimed at 4th-grade students. The Portuguese students scored 522 points, significantly above the international average (500 points); nevertheless, they ranked third to last among the 14 participating countries6.

Assessing Maths A and Physics

The TIMSS Advanced is a study conducted by the IEA to assess advanced Maths and Physics literacy. The first edition was held in 1995; however, the study did not maintain a regular frequency. The following editions were only held in 2008 and 2015. Portugal participated in the 2015 edition with 12th-grade Maths A and Physics students (on regular education). The Portuguese students scored 482 points in advanced maths, which was significantly below the international average (500 points); nevertheless, they ranked 5th among the ten participating countries7. In Physics, Portugal scored 467 points, ranking 4th among the nine participating countries.


(1) Marôco, J., Gonçalves, C., Lourenço, V., & Mendes, R. (2016a). PISA 2015 - Portugal: Literacia científica, literacia de Leitura & literacia matemática (Vol. I). Lisbon: IAVE.

(2) Tavares, P. S. (2017). Andreas Schleicher: ″Portugal é a maior história de sucesso da Europa no PISA″. Diário de Notícias.

(3) Marôco, J. (2020). International Large-Scale Assessments: Trends and Effects on the Portuguese Public Education System. In Harju-Luukkainen, H.; McElvany, N. & Stang, J. (Eds). Monitoring of Student Achievement in the 21st Century. European Policy Perspective and Assessment Strategies. Berlin: Springer: (In Press)

(4) Marôco, J., Gonçalves, C., Lourenço, V., & Mendes, R. (2016b). TIMSS 2015 - Portugal. Volume I: Desempenhos em Matemática e em Ciências. Lisbon: IAVE

(5) Marôco, J. (2018). "O Bom Leitor: Preditores da Literacia de Leitura dos Alunos Portugueses no PIRLS 2016". Revista Portuguesa de Educação.

(6) IAVE (2017) Resultados globais: PIRLS 2016 e ePIRLS 2016 — Portugal

(7) Marôco, J., Gonçalves, C., Lourenço, V., & Mendes, R. (2016c). TIMSS Advanced 2015 - Portugal: Desempenhos em matemática e em ciências (Vol. 1). Lisbon: IAVE.

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