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Publications:Focus on:Is PISA too slanted?

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Focus on: Is PISA too slanted?

Date of publication: 31 March 2014



PISA has become monumental in the world of education. But are its foundations solid?

"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it" Salvador Dali

It took 199 years to build the Tower of Pisa. Only 5 years after construction had started, the tower began to sink. It had been built on too weak a foundation, set in unstable soil. Although beautifully planned and designed, the project was flawed from the beginning. Yet, just because of its flaw and tilt, the tower of Pisa has become one of the best-known monuments worldwide, and teaches us at least two important lessons: foundations matter, and perfection does not equal attraction.

In recent years, the name "Pisa" has become associated with another giant: an international test of educational performance organised by the OECD. Indeed you could say that PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) is now the main reference for assessing student performance in mathematics, reading and science worldwide. By extension, PISA is often treated as a means to rank the effectiveness of national education systems.

Since its first edition in 2001, the mere mention of the word "PISA" has been ringing bells in people's ears – and the sounds are often quite alarming. The triennial results of the tests are anticipated with high anxiety in many education ministries, and as soon as they are known, a swathe of media articles focus on the "wake up calls" that the results give to reform education systems amidst slipping standards. When the latest 2012 results were published news items around Europe speculated immediately about what could have possibly happened to Finnish secondary students. The country had fallen from its decade-long dominance as the child prodigy of Europe down to 12th place in the world over the course of only three years.

But what does PISA really do? It is a standardized, international test that is given to 15 year old students in participating countries. Starting with 43 countries in 2001, the number of PISA countries has now risen to 65. The tests and assessment are as objective as possible. But what skills and competences are really being tested? Are the foundations really solid?

Some critics argue that the only skill PISA really tests is a student's ability to perform in tests. For example, Chinese artist and dissident Ai Weiwei claims in an interview with der Spiegel that the fact that students in Shanghai top the world in the 2012 PISA tables tells you little about Chinese education. For him, the Chinese education system is hollow and empty, void of humanity and creativity. Equally, a number of critics attribute the rapid improvement of Asian countries to a reorganisation of education systems in order to prepare students better for international tests like PISA. One danger is that PISA's narrow focus leads to a neglect in education systems of other key issues and skills, such as fostering culture, creativity and innovation.

Such critics are no doubt right to remind us that no test can provide a solid basis for assessing the quality of education systems, let alone providing a template for how a system should be organised. And of course there is more to education than reading, mathematics and science, even if these subjects are crucial. However, a closer look into PISA also gives insights into performance. The strong performance of Finland (and despite slipping back, the country is still one of the top performers in the EU) can be largely attributed to consistent good results irrespective of the socio-economic conditions or geographical location of students. In other words, the Finnish have been more successful than other nations in addressing the impact of social inequity on education.

Eurydice's studies on reading, science and mathematics have all used PISA data as a starting point for further reflection, seeking to find out more about what could be done to improve education in these areas. These reports bring together research evidence, international survey results and information on national education policies in more than 30 European countries. They identify obstacles and problem areas as well as effective approaches to literacy, mathematics and science education. All three studies confirm that gender and family background are important factors which impact on achievement; pre-primary education is vital to the development of emergent skills, and more needs to be done to promote successful strategies and practices for tackling learning difficulties.

Given what we know about the limitations of education systems in Europe, we should perhaps stop being quite so surprised by PISA results. And while PISA cannot tell us everything about our education systems, it does provide clear evidence on some things. So perhaps we should stop misusing PISA as a ranking of education systems, and start trying to understand better what the results really show us about strengths and weaknesses of certain aspects of our education systems.

Like the leaning tower, OECD's PISA test is now iconic - a monument in the world of education testing. The leaning tower has now been standing for about 840 years - despite its initial design flaw. PISA tests may not be around for quite so long – but while they are with us we could probably make better use of them.

 

Authors: David Crosier and Andrea Puhl