In a triennial international survey on academic ability, Japanese students ranked at their lowest level ever for reading skills while remaining in the top band for science and mathematics, the OECD said Tuesday.
The 2018 Program for International Student Assessment tests covered about 600,000 15-year-old students in 79 countries and regions.
Japanese students came 15th in reading — down from eighth in the 2015 tests.
They scored 504 points on average for reading skills, which was higher than the average score of 487 among the 37 OECD members, but down by 12 points from the previous test. Students in the bottom bracket, scoring fewer than 408 points, also accounted for 16.9 percent, up by 4 percentage points.
The education ministry believes students can still improve in their ability to find information from texts, as well as better evaluate the credibility of texts and more clearly explain their thoughts and reasoning to others. It also pointed out that Japanese students are not used to reading long passages on computer screens.
Students in Japan also ranked lower for science — in fifth place, down from second — and mathematics — at sixth, down from fifth.
For science, the average Japanese score fell 9 points to 529, the lowest level ever, while the average score in mathematics fell 5 points to 527.
Among the 37 OECD members, Japan came 11th in reading, first in mathematics and second in science.
The proportion of Japanese students who cited reading as one of their favorite hobbies stood at 45.2 percent, compared with an OECD average of 33.7 percent, according to a questionnaire survey.
Students who gave positive responses about reading in the questionnaire tended to score higher in that section of the test.
Andreas Schleicher, OECD director for education and skills, said that Japanese students scored lower in free description-style questions than in selection-type questions.
Cultivating personal thoughts given the plethora of information available in the digital age, and being able to tell the difference between facts and opinions, are important for students, Schleicher said.
Reading ability among Japanese students fell to 14th from eighth in the 2003 PISA tests. The plunge, referred to as the PISA shock, prompted the government to review its yutori (relaxed education policy).
Reading ability temporarily recovered, but it fell to eighth in the 2015 tests from fourth in the 2012 tests.
The ministry will move forward with vocabulary education programs included in new curriculum guidelines, and will aim to nurture student’s ability to understand information and express their thoughts.
Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu province and Zhejiang province, which jointly participated in the tests as one region, finished first in the three fields. Singapore, which came first in the 2015 tests, ranked second in the three categories.