The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international study to assess and evaluate various education systems worldwide through the attainment of students. The tests measure 15-year-old student performance on mathematics, science and reading with the aim of assessing their problem-solving skills and general cognition. Hungarian pupils’ performance on the PISA test offers a valuable insight into the most serious problem that the Hungarian education system is facing; the attainment of students is largely determined by their socio-economic background, which hurts the chances of disadvantaged student to thrive. Schools tend to have students from similar socio-economic family background – instead of mixing students from different social classes – creating a huge performance gap between Hungarian schools.
On PISA tests, in terms of average scores on reading, science and mathematics, the most successfully performing students are coming from countries like China (1st in the ranking), Estonia (5), Canada (8), Poland (11), and the UK (14). Hungary is the 33rd in the overall ranking, behind Lithuania (32), but ahead of Italy (34). Hungary was slightly below the OECD average on all three tests in 2018 (latest available test results) as well as in the years before. In mathematics, Hungary is 34th on the list (and has the same scores as Lithuania and Spain). In terms of the science results Hungary is 32nd, behind Lithuania (31), but ahead of Russia (33). On reading Hungarian school children attained the 32nd place on the list (tying with Italy and Lithuania).
The most socio-economically advantaged students are four years ahead in their scholarly abilities
A closer look at the PISA test results exposes that the inequality in the performance of Hungarian pupils is (to a large extent) based on their socio-economic status. The gap in the reading comprehension scores of the 10 per cent most socio-economically advantaged students were 170 points higher than that of the 10 per cent most socio-economically disadvantaged pupils. This score differential is equal to four years of formal education. Despite the fact that both the 10 per cent most advantaged and the 10 per cent most disadvantaged students are of the same age, given their test results, the most socio-economically advantaged students are four years ahead in their scholarly abilities, comprehension and problem-solving skills than their less fortunate mates.
The student’s socio-economic background also impacts the likeliness of them becoming top achievers. In reading 7 per cent (OECD average: 9 per cent), in mathematics 8 per cent (OECD average: per cent) and in science 5 per cent (OECD average: 7 per cent) of Hungarian students achieved outstanding results. In reading 14 per cent of the top performers were from advantaged family backgrounds, while only 1 per cent of them were from deprived socio-economic backgrounds. On average, 17 per cent of OECD top performers come from privileged families, while 3 per cent come from a disadvantaged background. Since in Hungary the proportion of top performing disadvantaged students is lower than the OECD average, the socio-economic inequality effects the Hungarian education system more profoundly than it effects the OECD overall.
Besides the low proportion of socio-economically disadvantaged but top-performing students, the Hungarian PISA score results also expose that the poorly performing students are highly concentrated in some peripheral schools. The concentration of low-scoring students in some peripheral schools creates a large variation between the performance of Hungarian schools: there is very little mixing between high and low achieving students. The low performance of students in low-scoring schools is unfortunately reinforced by the schools’ climate as well – those students who reported that their teachers need to wait a long time until the class finishes performed significantly worse than those students who attended schools where there was no problem with discipline. The problem here is self-evident – students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds cluster into low-scoring schools sometimes with a tough climate. This makes makes breaking out if the cycle very difficult.
Given the PISA results, there is some indication that in Hungary the performance of students in schools is more profoundly determined by their family background than in other OECD countries. It is a concerning fact, because it implies that the opportunities of young Hungarians from low socio-economic backgrounds are unequal compared to students from more economically prosperous backgrounds. The equality of opportunity for all students is a very important principle and something the education system should be aiming for. There is need for more attention and careful policymaking to address this matter in Hungary too, giving every student, regardless of the choices their parents made in their lives, an equal opportunity to perform well in schools and to be able to create a successful life for themselves.
In Hungary the performance of students in schools is more profoundly determined by their family background than in other OECD countries
 ’PISA 2018 Worldwide Ranking – average score of mathematics, science and reading’, Facts Maps, (2019), https://factsmaps.com/pisa-2018-worldwide-ranking-average-score-of-mathematics-science-reading/, accessed 30.04.2022.
 Andreas Schleicher, ‘PISA 2018 – Insights and Interpretations’, OECD, (2019), 17-19.
 F. Avvisati, A. Echazarra, P. Givord and M. Schwabe, ’PISA 2018: Hungary’, OECD, (2019), https://www.oecd.org/pisa/publications/PISA2018_CN_HUN.pdf, accessed 30.04.2022.