For the first time ever, Japanese 15-year-olds topped the list in reading and science performance in an international academic survey last year covering 34 developed countries, according to data released Tuesday by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Japanese students also performed second-best in math in the triennial study, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, among the 34 OECD member nations.

The scores in every category were all-time highs, indicating scholastic performance is improving, education ministry officials said. In 2009, Japanese students were second in science, fourth in math and fifth in reading.

The latest survey, conducted last year, sampled about 510,000 students in 65 countries and regions, including 34 OECD member countries. In Japan, some 6,400 students were randomly selected for the survey.

“It is the first time for our country to top the rankings in reading and science performance among OECD countries in this survey,” education minister Hakubun Shimomura said Tuesday.

“Japanese students achieved the best showing ever,” he said, adding that the percentage of students showing lower proficiency in the three fields decreased, while the percentages at the higher levels increased.

Tetsuya Kishimoto, an official at the ministry’s elementary and secondary education bureau, credited efforts by the ministry and others to improve academic skills and the educational environment, including the curriculum guideline change in fiscal 2009 that expanded science and math education at junior high schools.

Among the 65 countries and regions surveyed, Japan rose to seventh from ninth place in math, and to fourth in reading and science, up from eighth and fifth respectively.

Shanghai bagged top marks in all three categories. Singapore was second in math, followed by Hong Kong.

Hong Kong was second in both reading and science, while Singapore finished third in the two categories.

Paris-based OECD launched the PISA in 2000 to address the demands by member nations for “regular and reliable data on the knowledge and skills of their students and the performance of their education systems.”

Past results spurred the government to revise its “relaxed and lighter curriculum” education policy, spurred by the so-called PISA shock from the 2003 poll that saw Japanese students drop to sixth place from the top spot in math and from eighth to 14th in reading.

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