The PISA international assessments are part of the globalisation of education. The OECD (which runs the tests) claims there are benefits to having a global system of assessment because we can learn what the best educational practices are and apply them globally. However, critics argue that these tests could be doing more harm than good, by focusing on a narrow range of educational outcomes, which reflect the biases of Western educationalists.
What are the PISA tests?
The PISA Tests are sat by a random sample of 15 year old students every three years, and measure their ability in reading, mathematics and science. More than 3 million students in over 90 countries have participated in the PISA tests since they started in the year 2000, with the latest round being in 2018, the next will be in 2021.
The PISA Tests aim to assess whether what students have learned in school can be applied to real life situations, focusing on their ability to reason and communicate rather than factual recall.
PISA stands for the ‘Programme of International Student Assessment and is run by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. An overview of the PISA programme and summary of the 2018 results can be found on the PISA website here.
Countries volunteer to take part in the PISA tests and if a country isn’t equipped to conduct the test country-wide, then regions of that country can participate instead.
If a country volunteers to participate, then individual schools are selected to represent all 15 year olds, and the individual students who are to sit the tests are then randomly selected from within those schools.
Students take the test in their native language, and the tests involve interpreting texts, solving problems and using their reasoning skills.
According to the video below, the primary aim of PISA isn’t to rank countries next to each other, although this is what tends to catch the headlines, rather it is about assessing how successfully students are being equipped for further study and work , and about collecting data to put together a picture of what the most effective education systems look like.
Examples of PISA test questions
You can find some examples of the PISA test questions on the PISA web site here.
These questions really are worth having a look. The ‘reading’ questions really do challenge students to read thoroughly and think about their answers, and the maths questions all seem to be applied to real-world circumstances.
An overview of the 2018 PISA Results
Top ranked countries
Selected regions in China (not all regions do the tests!) came out on top, with a mean score in all tests of 555, closely followed by 3 other wealthy Asian city-states, then Estonia, Canada and Finland. Overall, there’s not too much of a mix at the top end – it’s either Asian city or Euro-American-Australian!
Bottom ranked countries
Much more of a mix down at the bottom: The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Saudi Arabia and Argentina stand out for me, either due to large population size or to just surprise due to their having quite a high level of development!
Problems with the PISA tests
This excellent (and short) 2019 article in The Conversation outlines seven problems with PISA tests, among which it mentions that economic and cultural factors in some countries can explain a of the difference in test results – poverty may account for up to 50% of the difference, for example,
It also mentions that the sampling of schools may bias the results – ‘indiginous’ schools which have higher SEN rates are not included in Canada’s sample, for example, which could boost it up to near the top.
This 2019 Washington Post article makes several main criticisms of the PISA tests, all based on a lot of research by serious academics. The gist of these criticisms are that the tests are very narrow – focusing on English, maths and science, and this narrow agenda reflects the biases of the rich people who have mainly been involved with designing them.
Despite their claims that the tests are universally applicable, they are not: the real world challenges faced by students in poorer countries probably aren’t being assessed by these maths/ english and science tests, they are probably more appropriate to students in wealthier countries.
Why do pupils in some countries get better PISA test scores than others?
Do European countries do well simply because the tests have been designed for them? And do the students in countries such as Saudi Arabia do worse because the tests aren’t culturally relevant (too narrow)?
Or is there at least some validity to these tests and then real underlying factors which might explain differences in student peformance?
Do those countries/ regions at the top end of the scale have features in common? Do their students perform well because of cultural factors such as parents valuing education, or economic factors because of the degree of equality, lack of poverty? Or is it because of the quality of education systems and amount of resources or way the schools are organised?
This is definitely something worth exploring, and it’s something I’d recommend all students think about doing.
You can do so by using either the individual snapshots of countries from PISA, or simply by doing your own independent research on the education systems of those countries at the top end of the league tables.
Are the PISA tests damaging education?
This letter, written in 2014 by education academics and published in The Guardian outlines several concerns about the negative consequences of the PISA testing regime. Some of these concerns include:
- It has increased the pressure on national governments to rise up the rankings, which can increase the amount of testing (rather than education).
- It encourages countries to focus on a narrow range of quantitative measures in mathematics, science and English rather than a broader range of qualitative educational goals.
- It encourages a focus on a three-year improvement cycle, rather than longer term development.
- ‘Work readiness’ is not the main aim of education in some countries, yet this is what the PISA tests are designed to assess.
- PISA has no mandate in countries, it has just ‘imposed itself on them’.
- It opens the doors to private companies to sell ‘education improvement’ products based on PISA findings.