Factors Affecting Turkish Students Performance Education Essay


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This study investigates factors affecting Turkish students achievement in mathematics in Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). The findings are interpreted to explain why Turkish students who are 15 years old are less successful than students from the other countries in PISA. The results show that student background, teaching-learning strategies, school characteristics, families' socio-economic status (SES), quality of curriculum, preschool education are significant effects on mathematics achievements in PISA. The findings are crucial for Turkish education system because of the fact that changing school facilities, improving the teaching-learning strategies are much more possible than changing student background and families' socio-economic status and country's economic status affecting students' mathematics performances.


The Program for International Student Assessment is an internationally standardized assessment that is coordinated by Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with a view to improving educational policies and outcomes. PISA is administered to 15 years old students in schools. Four assessments have been carried out so far (in 2000, 2003, 2006 and 2009) taking place in three-year cycles. Besides, tests are typically administered to between 4500 and 10,000 students in each country. The domains of reading, mathematics and science literacy are assessed in all PISA. The main focus of PISA 2000 was on reading literacy; that means including an extensive set of tasks in this domain. While in PISA 2003, the focus was on mathematical literacy and problem solving, in 2006, the emphasis was on scientific literacy. Reading of electronic texts has been introduced as an option in 2009 cycle and the focus of assessment will again be on reading in 2012 PISA.

When situation of Turkey in PISA is investigated, the research said that Turkey participated in 2003 for first time. In this program, results of Turkey in 2003 and 2006 are not pleasant or satisfactory, unfortunately, for not only math but also science and reading literacy. Turkey is 28th among 40 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries in terms of math in 2003 and 29th among 30 OECD countries in 2006. Result of Turkey in 2009 was recently announced and although there is an increasing, it isn't enough. There are six proficiency levels which are representing a group of tasks of increasing difficulty from level 1 to level 6 (See Appendix A). Turkish students are still at level 2 among 6 levels. Hence researching why Turkish students have low achievement in math PISA tests which are formed by different assessments and factors that seem to affect the math performance of Turkey in PISA can be necessary for our education system. In other words, investigating causes of this low rank in terms of math after analyzing data about math results of Turkey and the other countries can reveal patterns that could give insight about deficiencies in our Turkish math education. The causes of this low rank are much related to supporting students learning and our education system.

This study evaluates factors that are related to the mathematical literacy skills assessed by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Thanks to this project, noticing deficiencies of our teaching and learning math can be possible and so that PISA results contribute to improving our teaching practices. The significant questions which are essential to determine factors influencing Turkish students' math achievements in PISA are as following:

What are highlights of findings at international level and at national Turkish level in terms of math in PISA?

What are similarities and dissimilarities between questions solved in Turkish math classrooms and questions posed by math section of PISA?

What are factors that seem to affect the comparative math performance of other nations and Turkey in PISA?

When the reasons are investigated, there are many factors to consider. For example, while social and economic status of family affect the variability of students' success in developed countries mostly (Coleman, 1966); facilities of schools affect student's success at developing countries (Heyneman & Loxley, 1983). However; in Turkey both of these factors influence students' achievements but why? So what can students, parents, administrations and teachers do to improve success? In other words; all of us have great roles to solve this problem. One of aims of this project is explaining responsibilities of all of us as a student, teacher, parent and administration. At the same time, after going over types of math questions in PISA, examining similarities and dissimilarities about math questions between PISA and Ã-SS exam can be informative. What is valued in our educational system?

There are some articles and research on the situation of Turkey in PISA. For example, Alacacı & Erbaş (2010) inquired into "unpacking the inequality among Turkish schools: findings from PISA results" (p.118). He investigated the effects of certain school characteristics on students' mathematics performance in Turkey in the PISA 2006 while controlling for family background and demographic characteristics. The other article is what does the PISA 2003 mean for Turkey? As Cinoğlu states,

The results show that Turkish education system has serious problems and curriculum should be changed. Turkish curriculum includes very limited of PISA contexts. Turkey is far away than 'European Union' (EU) countries in terms of educational quality and enrolment rates. On the other hand, Turkey tries to join the EU and to do this; Turkey should increase its education quality and enrolment rate. The study draws a big picture about Turkish education system from past to today and discusses the mean of (PISA) 2003 results for Turkey by using Turkish Ministry of National Education, World Bank and PISA resources ( 2009, p 43).


The results of studies investigating the effects of Turkish students' achievement in mathematics in PISA are reviewed to research why Turkish students are less successful than students from the other countries in math test which are formed by different assessments in Program for International students Assessments (PISA).

School variability in Turkey and individual student characteristics affect students' mathematics performances in PISA. In Turkey, students in schools in bigger communities such as towns and cities and in better-developed (Western and central) regions would perform higher than students in smaller communities and in less-developed regions since they would have easier access to improved resources. Together with this, students in Science High Schools, Anatolian High Schools, and Foreign Language Intensive High Schools have performance levels above OECD average in PISA, while students in general high schools and vocational and technical high schools which house large amount of the student populace performed below the average. The reason of these differences can be because of selectivity exam before entering to high school. In other words, before attending to high school, students have to enter an exam and they would settle a school according to their results. Besides, Science High Schools, Anatolian High Schools and Foreign Language Intensive High Schools require high scores to attend. However, students who participated in PISA are chosen randomly not only from Science high schools, Anatolian or Foreign Language Intensive High schools. When the schools which were located in different region in Turkey are examined, it is found that 2 of the 2 Science High Schools (%100), 4 of the 5 Anatolian Vocational High Schools (%80), 4 of the 6 Secondary and Vocational High Schools (%66.7), 3 of the 6 Anatolian Schools (%50.0), 3 of the 7 Vocational High Schools (%42.9) and 1 of the 7 General High Schools were efficient to be successful in not only math sections but also the other sections in PISA. For example, Anatolian High Schools in Aegean Region should be increase mathematics and reading score about 14.36 and 35.30 point respectively. As a result of this study, improvement of some school types such as General High Schools and Vocational High Schools should be received priority consideration for high quality education in Turkey (Alacacı, 2010 ; Demir &Depren, 2010).

Both technological and non-technological educational resources are crucial in students' mathematics achievement in PISA. Inadequacy of computers effects students' mathematics achievement. Furthermore, the better library materials are, the higher the mathematics achievement. One of the most important factors affecting Turkish students' achievement in PISA is quality of educational resources both technological (computers, software, etc.) and non-technological (textbooks, workbooks, etc.). When we came to the question why Turkish Students are less successful than students from the other countries, shortage of Turkish school resources is a significant reason. Especially, the eastern region of Turkey has this important problem (Demir & Ünal, 2010).

In addition, the socio economic background variables such as parental education, parental employment, household items and the average of socio economic status of the school are determinants of student achievement. The level student Economic, Social, and Cultural Status (ESCS) and school's average ESCS which effect Turkish students' performance is highest among the participating countries in PISA 2006. If Turkish students ESCS level in OECD countries, Turkish averages would be 39 points higher than it was in 2006 (Dinçer & Uysal 2010, Alacacı & ErbaÅŸ 2010).

Furthermore, one of the most important reasons of low math achievement in PISA is Turkish curriculum since Turkish curriculum includes very limited PISA contexts. PISA math questions require to critical thinking, relating to real life application to math, using logic and discovering. PISA measures not only math knowledge but also skills of using the math knowledge on questions. Unfortunately, our Turkish curriculum includes little daily life application or discovering learning. This show that dissimilarities between questions solved in Turkey math classrooms and questions posed by math section of PISA. Ã-SS exam which includes only absolute knowledge conduct teachers to solve questions about knowledge. For this reason, Turkish students can be less successful than students from the other countries participating in PISA. In other words, they aren't used to this type math questions so this might affect their mathematic performance in PISA (CinoÄŸlu, 2009).

On the other hand, Finland, Hong Kong, Canada which are the three highest performing countries in not only science but also math according to the PISA 2006 results. When Turkey is compared to Finland, Honk Kong and Canada, the data analysis shows that Turkey had shortcomings in explanation how to adapt subjects to different events and making use of examples about technological applications (Balım, 2010).


This project will investigate some articles and books about factors affecting Turkish students' achievement in mathematics in PISA (Program for International student assessment) and possible reasons why Turkish students who are in 10th or 11th grade are unsuccessful in this assessment. In other words, it is needed to gather information in regard to PISA math goals, structure, highlights of differences between other nations and Turkey. It is also necessary to find out quantitative data about results of PISA from participating nations. After that, results in terms of Turkey can be interpreted and some interview questions are asked to experts. So, the research methodology is interview method. Interview questions were asked to expert who included university professors about Turkish PISA results and math teachers interested in this issue. The advantage of this method is seeing how different experts' perspectives and their interpretations about this issue can be compared and contrasted. In addition to this, how they interpret poor performance of students in Turkey in PISA can reveal new viewpoints. Procedurally, while conducting interview, taking notes was difficult so that using a tape recorder was helpful in order to collect many details from interviewees.

The interview and open ended survey questions inquired about points such as nature of PISA-Math, and what we learn from PISA to improve educational systems, what we learn from PISA to improve classroom practices in math in order to ask to experts. The interview was qualitative investigation according to quantitative data and also these questions were open-ended and interpretive questions so that they expressed their experiences, ideas and thoughts without limiting. What's more there was an order of questions since some questions included the others so paying attention the order of questions was vital for interviews.

Interviews and open ended survey were conducted with university professor and teachers with a stake or interest in this topic about Turkish PISA results. Cengiz Alacacı was most helpful for addressing my research questions due to the fact that he has investigated really detailed information about this issue and even has co-authored an article about this topic. He answered interview questions conscientiously by way of e-mail. The other participants were mathematics teachers who were really interested in PISA results and they had enough information about it. One of them was Zerrin Toker who is head of mathematics department and teacher at OBI. The interview with Mr.Toker was not only verbal but also written. The other interviewee Şafak Işıldak was my old math teacher from high school who had necessary information about PISA and sent answers of interview questions by mail.

After some articles and research were investigated about PISA's features and PISA results, the interviews were conducted with interviewees. The interviews were administered and collected in middle of March. The interview with Zerrin Toker was arranged beforehand, and then the interview was administered on her study room at scheduled time. The other two interviews with participants were administered by mail. After the interview questions were sent to interviewees by mail, participants sent their answers. There were not any problems encountered during data collection and also all questions were answered by interviewees. Dr. Alacacı answered all questions from different perspectives and took into consideration all factors affecting students' achievements in math in PISA. However, the teacher informants focused on teaching methods and using teaching methods in classroom much more than the other factors affecting students' achievements in math in PISA.


According to data which have been collected, the most significant factors affecting students' math performance in PISA when Turkey is compared with the highest performing countries are families' socio-economic status, school characteristics, country's level of economic development, availability of preschool education, quality of curriculum and teaching methods. According to Mr. Alacacı, students from wealthier countries can perform higher than students from less wealthy countries because of the fact that wealthier countries have more financial resources to spend in education. The following table illustrates that there is a direct proportion between math scores in PISA and national income per person.

Table 1 Performance in mathematics - national income per capita

For example, Finland is the first rank in PISA scores and GDP per capita. This is starighthforward as wealthier countries have more financial resources to spend in education such as school facilities, equipments, etc. Financial resources provide the better school facilities, buildings, computers, smaller class size etc. However, changing this factor in short or medium term is highly difficult. Together with this, families socio-economic status which is again difficult to change in short term by educational policy makers affect students' achievements since well-educated father and mother and a certain level of income can provide more for children such as separate room at home, books, computers etc. Besides, one or more year pre-school education correlates positively with performance of school systems independent of countries and wealth or families' SES level. It is very interesting that pre-school education brings an additional 13 point in PISA scores. One or more year of preschool education correlates positively with overall performance of school systems independent of countries wealth, or families SES level. However, percentage of availability of pre-school education in Turkey is 28% now and the goal is 100%. Furthermore, according to Mr. Alacacı and Mr Işıldak, school characteristics that include number of weekly hours of mathematics, quality of mathematics curriculum, school systems which track students by exams, differentiated educational environment, how schools are governed are all highly crucial factors for students' math performance in PISA. As Alacacı states,

Number of weekly hours of mathematics, quality of mathematics curriculum, how schools select students or not select students (academically homogeneous or heterogonous schools or classrooms), school systems which track students by exams create differentiated educational environments and do not usually do well as countries which do not differentiate among her students but try to improve the quality of learning of all students, how schools are governed (all decisions made centrally, or some decisions are made locally by local expertise, or all decisions are made locally by expert or non-expert elements; better: some decisions are made locally by local expertise, some are made at the national level by national expertise, are schools and teachers being supported professionally, are they being held responsible for their performance and are they expected to do well, is superior performance of teachers and principals rewarded? Is there constructive competition among schools? Turkey: good (but few) schools highly selective based on academic aptitude tests such as SBS, almost all decisions made centrally, little room for local initiative, educators not given latitude and not being held responsible for performance (e-mail, March 4, 2011).

Mr. Alacacı considers that whether schools and teachers are being supported professionally, and if they are being held responsible for their performance and superior performance of teachers and principals is rewarded or not are effective indirect factors on students' PISA scores.

Teachers emphasize especially effectiveness of school characteristics and quality of curriculum in PISA. According to Mrs. Toker, the main factor affecting students' achievements in our country is teaching methods. Programs can be given to students theoretically but not practically. In other words, after teachers generally give definition and formulas, they solve some examples and makes students to solve similar questions in math lessons. So, students cannot use that knowledge on real life application or questions required critical thinking. PISA questions are not only measure students' knowledge but also skill of using knowledge. Our education system focuses only subject area knowledge and questions and it isn't enough to meet expectations from PISA which includes more application in practical contents.

It is easily perceived that all interviewees think that quality of curriculum is one of the most important factors affecting students' math performance in PISA. On the other hand, there are some different ideas about how teaching methods used in Turkish math classrooms influence students' achievement in PISA. While teachers consider that teaching methods like teacher centered approach influence students' achievements negatively, Mr. Alacacı conceives that teaching methods do not seem to make a whole lot of difference in PISA, but the quality of curriculum seem to improve the effectiveness of schooling by increasing learning outcomes. Unlike teachers, he points out that best performing countries tend to use a lot of direct instruction with efficient (non-repeating) curriculum and effective homework. The reason of this difference between teachers and Mr. Alacacı is that Dr. Alacacı looked at this issue from all perspectives but the teachers generally focused on teaching methods and using of teaching methods in classrooms. Actually, all of interviewees believe that the main problem of low achievements in PISA is curriculum and using of this curriculum in classrooms.

What we can learn from PISA to improve learning in math classrooms are differentiating math curriculum, improving the alignment between curriculum goals and OSS exam. Besides, having a balance between abstraction and generalization of mathematical ideas and its connections to real life and to other disciplines focusing on affective outcomes of mathematics curriculum such as beliefs about math, attitudes and cognitive outcomes of mathematics curriculum are vital. Particularly, data been collected illustrates improving related to real life and mathematics and real life application are essential and beneficial for students' achievements in PISA.

Consequently, improving quality of learning by reforming curricula, improving inputs into the educational system such as more schools, better facilities and technology, making a deliberate effort to improve equity and access to education among groups of geographical regions like east vs west, institutionalizing preschool education at the national level and reducing quality gap between school types by converting all regular lycees into Anatolian or vocational technical lyceeses are given high importance by government, teachers and administrators to improve our education system under cover of PISA results. Additionally, as Zerrin Toker states,

Much more activities focused skill or ability and examples of evaluating can be given at revision and preparation of program. And also, textbooks can be provided to improve in this aspect. In-service education possibility can be presented to teachers about teaching lessons focused using knowledge skill (interview, March 5, 2011).

She emphasized that some orientations can be presented to teachers about making students to use knowledge in-service education. The reason of this, knowing knowledge isn't enough for students. They need to know using this knowledge on problems, applications and real life situations.


Research was shown that school characteristics, teaching-learning strategies, country's level of economic development, families' socio-economic status (SES), quality of curriculum, learning strategies, preschool education are decisive factors for students' achievements in PISA. The findings show that high ESCS variable in students' background factor has strongly positive effect on students' math performance in PISA. The findings indicate that high ESCS parents encourage their children to do well in school and provide more for their children like separate room and computer.

Besides, the findings show that Turkish curriculum includes highly limited PISA contexts. There are dissimilarities between questions solved in Turkish math classrooms and questions posed by math section in PISA. Turkish curriculum should be improved in regard to teaching not only knowledge but also skill of using knowledge and real life applications. Connecting to math to real life and the other disciplines should be given importance to increase Turkish students' performance.

Together with this, the findings show that the other main factor is school characteristics. Students in Science High Schools and Anatolian High Schools have performance levels above OECD average in PISA, while students in general high schools and vocational and technical high schools. Therefore, reducing quality gap between school types by converting all regular lycees into Anatolian or vocational technical lyceeses are given highly importance to improve our education system.

The findings are really vital to improve our educational system because of the fact that the changing mathematics curriculum and teaching-learning strategies are much easier than changing country's level of economic situation and students' background.

The factors affecting students' achievements can differentiate among countries participating in PISA so all findings can not be generalizable to the other countries. For example, student teacher relations and the feeling of belonging to school of students can affect positively mathematical literacy in Turkey, they has no effect in Finland which is very successful country in PISA (Akyüz,2010).

Consequently, analysis PISA data inform Turkish students' achievement levels and help to evaluate Turkish education system. Direct and indirect effects which are mentioned in this study on students' mathematic achievements in PISA should be improved so students' mathematics learning and mathematics scores can be increased.

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