08/30/2013 04:09 am ET Updated Oct 29, 2013

Who Are the All-round Top Students?

Summer in the northern hemisphere is barely over and we're already talking about doing well in school? Not only are we talking about doing well in school, we're talking about doing very well in school.

The rapidly growing demand for highly skilled workers has led to a global competition for talent. High-level skills are critical for creating new knowledge and technologies and for sparking innovation; as such, they are key to economic growth and social development. Considering students who excel in all the subjects that are measured in PISA - reading, mathematics and science - allows countries to estimate the depth of their future talent pool. These are PISA's academic all-rounders: students who attain proficiency Level 5 or 6 - the highest levels of proficiency in PISA - in the three subjects. All-rounders - students who attain proficiency Level 5 or 6 in all three PISA assessment subjects - are rare: only 4.1 percent of 15-year-old students meet this high standard. Why do - or should - countries care about the number of all-rounders they produce? Knowing the proportion of students who excel in these three subjects helps countries to determine the depth of their future talent pool, which has significant implications for a country's ability to compete and grow in an increasingly information-based global economy.

On average across OECD countries, 16.3 percent of students are top performers in at least one of the subject areas of science, mathematics or reading. But just because a student is a top performer in one subject does not necessarily mean that the student excels in all subjects. In Switzerland, for example, nearly one in four students is a top performer in mathematics, but only about one in 12 is a top performer in reading and one in ten is a top performer in science. The same is true for many Southeast Asian countries and economies, notably Hong Kong-China, Korea, Macao-China, Shanghai-China, Singapore and Chinese Taipei, where the likelihood of finding students who score at Level 5 or 6 in mathematics is considerably greater than that of finding students who score at that level in reading or science.

What is somewhat surprising is that, among countries with similar mean scores in PISA, there are notable differences in the percentage of academic all-rounders. For example, Korea and Singapore score about the same in mathematics, reading and science; but while 12 percent of students in Singapore are all-rounders, only 7 percent of students in Korea are. This means that even the best-performing school systems are not equally capable of producing top performers in all subjects.

But it's something to aspire to, even in late August.