School and lots of questions: at best a 4 minus

Fourth graders do alarmingly poorly in math and German. Our answers to the most frequently asked questions about the new education study.

A girl practices writing on a blackboard

Everyone is willing to learn – but what do the students end up with? Photo: Florian Gaertner/photothek/imago

1 This week the IQB education trend 2021 was presented. What’s the matter?

Every five years, the Berlin Institute for Quality Development in Education (IQB) examines on behalf of the Conference of Ministers of Education (KMK) whether fourth-grade students achieve the respective educational standards in German and math. For the study presented on Monday Almost 27,000 students in all federal states were tested. After 2011 and 2016, this is the third such study at primary schools. In contrast to other education studies such as PISA or TIMSS, the IQB education trend allows a comparison between the individual federal states. The IQB also tests the skills of ninth graders every three years.

2 And the results?

Are worrying, the authors write. In all four tested skills – reading, listening, spelling and math – the fourth graders have significantly worsened. The proportion of students who achieve the standard has fallen by an average of 8 to 10 percent compared to 2016, depending on their level of competence. Compared to 2011, the losses are even higher. In math, for example, only 55 percent of the children are currently on target with their performance. Ten years ago it was 68 percent.

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At the same time, the proportion of students who fail to meet the minimum standard at the end of primary school has recently increased by between 6 and 8 percentage points in all areas. Every fifth child now has major problems with reading and arithmetic, even almost every third with spelling – albeit with large differences in the countries (see question 4). Another finding: The dependency of educational success on the parental home has increased further. Children from socially disadvantaged and immigrant families are particularly affected.

3 Why is this problematic?

At least since the “Pisa shock” of 2001, it has been known how much educational success in Germany depends on the social background of the students. But even after twenty years, the federal and state governments have not found an effective counter-recipe. That has too the latest National Education Report denounced. Fourth graders from a privileged family home have a performance advantage of a whole school year. Anyone who comes from a socially disadvantaged family still has significantly poorer chances of completing school or going to grammar school.

However, the IQB study shows that it is not just socially disadvantaged children who are left behind. The performance of the socially better off students has also dropped across the board. This is another reason why the group of those who have significant learning gaps is at a record high. And that jeopardizes the life chances of the affected children. According to Ludger Wößmann from the Munich ifo Center for Educational Economics, the learning deficit of a third school year later leads to an average 3 percent lower income. Woessmann puts the possible follow-up costs of the current primary school misery for the economy at a 1.5 percent lower gross domestic product per year by the end of the century.

4. How are each country doing?

Very different. Bavaria and Saxony in particular are well above the state average in all competences. Bremen, Berlin, Brandenburg and North Rhine-Westphalia are all lower. And the gaps between countries are huge. The average difference in competence between leaders Bavaria and bottom Bremen when it comes to reading and listening corresponds to a whole school year. When it comes to spelling and math, things are looking bleak, especially in Berlin. Almost every second child there does not meet the minimum standards.

Petra Stanat, the scientific director of the IQB, emphasizes that the negative trend can be observed in all federal states. Only in Bremen, Rhineland-Palatinate and Hamburg have the values ​​remained comparatively stable. And because the other states have clearly deteriorated, Hamburg also made the biggest leap forward: In the state ranking, the city-state improved from 13th to 6th place. The authors of the IQB study suspect that Hamburg’s success is related to its data-based school policy.

5 What are the reasons for the downtrend?

There are essentially four possible explanations. First, the increasing heterogeneity in the schools. In their statements on the IQB study, the education ministers point out that the proportion of children with a migration background has risen from 25 to 38 percent over the past ten years. “We have not yet found the right formula to deal with this changed student body appropriately,” admits Hamburg’s school senator, Ties Rabe (SPD).

This is also related to the second explanation: the lack of staff, which teacher associations in many federal states describe as dramatic. There is often a lack of teachers, school social workers and integration workers for lessons that better support students with learning difficulties. The result: classes that are too large, hardly any internally differentiated instruction. Schools in socially disadvantaged situations find it particularly difficult to fill their positions. Although the specialists there are particularly urgently needed.

A third explanation has to do with the lack of standards in early childhood education, i.e. even before the children start primary school. In many federal states there are no mandatory support measures at this age. For KMK President Karin Prien (CDU), the IQB study has made it clear that the federal states are “starting too late with systematic diagnostics and differentiated funding”.

A fourth (and often chosen) explanation is the pandemic. Finally, the IQB tests were written between April and August 2021. So at the end of a school year that consisted mainly of distance learning or alternating lessons. On average, no regular lessons took place in more than three quarters of the time.

6 So is the pandemic to blame?

That is hard to say. It is clear that the learning conditions during distance and alternating teaching have sometimes led to massive learning deficits and increased social inequality. This is shown by the numerous responses from the schools. The IQB study now provides another indication of the connection. The two countries that never completely closed schools during Corona – Bremen and Hamburg – fall much less in performance than most other countries. However, the downward trend started well before the pandemic began. So the alarming IQB results cannot be blamed entirely on the pandemic.

7 How do the federal states now want to take countermeasures?

The countries have so far held back with concrete announcements. KMK President Prien would like to wait for a report from the Standing Scientific Commission, which should be available in December. But Prien sees (besides the lack of staff) above all in the targeted support for children of kindergarten age Need for action: “We need binding language level surveys with binding language support measures”. The IQB study also recommends promoting children with “unfavorable learning conditions” earlier. Hamburg could be a role model here. All children there have to take a language test at the age of four and a half. If you fail, you have to go to preschool.

8 Can the federal government help?

Possibly. Federal Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) wants to initiate the “trend reversal” towards more equal opportunities with the announced start chance program. From autumn 2024, 4,000 schools in a difficult social situation are to receive additional jobs and funds. However, it is not certain how much money will flow for it, nor how it will be distributed. The federal and state governments would be well advised to learn from recent mistakes. The Berlin Science Center for Social Research recently proved that the billion-euro program “Catching up after Corona” fell far short of its goals. Also because only a few countries have distributed the funds on the basis of learning assessments or social indices. Education researchers have been recommending this for a long time in order to be able to combat inequality of opportunity more effectively. Currently only Hesse, Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia distribute their resources depending on the local situation.

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