What Can We Learn from the Countries with the Top Test Scores?

Every three years, fifteen-year-old students around the world participate in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This assessment tests students’ skills and knowledge in science, math, reading, collaborative problem solving, and financial literacy. The 2015 PISA tested 28 million students in 72 countries and economies (these include various regions that may not be officially recognized as an independent). The results of the 2015 PISA were released in December 2016.

The United States performed in the middle of the pack in math, science, and reading, as it has for the last several rounds of PISA testing. In science, Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan, and Finland demonstrated the top scores. In Math, the high scores went to Singapore, Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and Japan. Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada, Finland, and Ireland came in with the top reading scores.

The PISA is just one measure of knowledge and skills, but it has been involved in education reform in countries like Germany and Brazil. These countries have looked at their findings and the recommendations in the reports provided by PISA in order to make their education systems more inclusive and successful for students of all backgrounds.

Let’s take a look at the education systems in some of the top-performing countries to get an idea of what they do to guarantee student success.


Students in Singapore participate in a highly regimented educational program. Instruction is highly scripted and uniform across all levels and subjects. Teachers focus on curriculum coverage, factual information, procedural knowledge, and preparing for ending year testing by using textbooks, worksheets, practice examples, and drill problems. Classrooms are dominated by teacher talk while students are generally compliant and attentive listeners. 

Singapore’s national curriculum focuses not on teaching students how to learn, but on the procedures of solving problems. There is precise alignment between curriculum, instruction, and assessment in classrooms. This highly rigorous course of study leads to a national high-stakes exam. Teachers are held accountable for student performance on this exam, so they rarely deviate from the prescribed curriculum.

Families in Singapore buy into the regimented national education program and often sign their children up for additional tutoring to help them keep up with the demands of the rigorous work.


In Finland, the educational creed is to do whatever it takes to helps students be successful. That means as soon as a teacher feels like a student is not making progress, he or she is trusted to take steps immediately. Finnish teachers have the know-how to help struggling students because they all have master’s degrees. And when one method of extra help doesn’t work, teacher consult with each other to plan new strategies. It’s estimated that about 30% of Finnish students receive extra help from their teacher during the first nine years of school. Coupled with experienced and educated teachers, a hallmark of Finnish schools is that they are small enough that teachers know every student.

Finland began transforming their education system about 40 years ago as part of an economic recovery plan. The transformation included making equity the cornerstone of Finnish education. Schools are publicly funded and controlled by local town councils that are run by educators, not business people. There is no standardized testing, except at the end of high school. There is no ranking or comparison of students, teachers, or regions. The well-rounded curriculum includes classes in Finish, math, science, art, music, sports, religion, textile, Swedish, biology, geography, physics, and chemistry, as well as a third language, which is usually English. Play and time outside are considered just as important as academics. 

All of these changes have led to Finland have the smallest difference between their highest and lowest performing students in the whole world.


Like Finland, Estonia’s education system is based on equity. The country prides itself on giving every student a similar education experience, no matter the place of origin or socioeconomic background. And this equity starts early in a child’s life. Free education begins at 18 months old when parental leave ends and caretakers go back to work.

Schools are highly integrated and often teachers are unaware of students’ economic backgrounds. Teachers also spend a great deal of time with students—staying with the same group from grades one through three. Deep relationships develop and strength the teacher’s ability to offer support and prevent students from falling behind.

Schools in Estonia follow a national curriculum. It outlines what must be covered in each class through the ninth grade. Schools have local autonomy to decide how students will learn the curriculum. Very few schools in Estonia track students by level, instead most create classes of varied ability levels. After the ninth grade, students can choose to continue on an academic path or a vocational path. This continuing education is free, as is college.

Many of the countries surrounding Estonia were quick to change their education practices after being freed from Soviet control. But Estonia held on the concept of overall equality as something that was important to helping all students succeed


Equality seems to be the name of the game when it comes to high-performing school systems around the world. Each of the countries featured has a national curriculum and are working towards making schooling work for all students and, in turn, the country as a whole. While the methods range from highly regimented to extremely personalized, results are similar—when you expect the best from your students and you’re willing to work to help them achieve it, they will.

Amanda Ronan is an Austin-based writer. After many years as a teacher, Amanda transitioned out of the classroom and into educational publishing. She wrote and edited English, language arts, reading, and social studies content for grades K-12. Since becoming a full-time writer, Amanda has worked with a diverse set of clients, ranging from functional medicine doctors to design schools to moving companies. She blogs, writes long-form articles, and pens YA and children's fiction. Her first YA series, My Brother is a Robot, is slated for release by Scobre Educational Press in September 2015.