PISA Preview

27 Nov

Next week we will get the PISA scores for 2012.  The tests were pretty much unknown to most people, including those working in schools, until the 2009 results were used to radically change the direction of our education system in Wales.  The big question, aside from how well we may or may not do, is what will the implications of this years scores be?

As of November 13th there are 117,000 people unemployed in Wales.  When those individuals next apply for a job and reach the interview how many do you think will put forward their PISA scores as validation for their credibility as a candidate?

Now my flippancy isn’t designed to totally discount the importance of PISA to our economy.  Clearly these international comparators are influential in demonstrating the strength and capabilities of the workforce of tomorrow.  PISA can be influential in attracting new investment and jobs into Wales as it gives an indication of the skills and abilities of the potential labour market.

However, is that solely reason enough to allow our entire education system to have become driven by these tests?  Reform after reform has been brought in to ensure that Wales climbs the PISA rankings.  Yet it is still the merits of GCSEs, A Levels and potentially in the future the Welsh Baccalaureate which are the measures by which university places are offered and existing employers evaluate CVs.  When it comes to these indicators in Wales we have seen steady progress

Still, PISA remains important, but is it actually a fair assessment? More and more, academics are beginning to question the methodology of PISA tests.  Test that have driven education reforms and millions in funding across the world, including here in Wales.  Concerns that different countries take different questions, or how the weighting given to different types of questions is determined, certainly raises fears that they are not valid comparisons.  Some academics believe the difference in these questions could account for huge variation in final positions.  Denmark for example could land anywhere between 5th and 37th depending on these factors.  That has profound implications for the way it’s Government and people react to their international standings.  From celebration and praise to chastising staff and draconian changes to practices.  Many in Wales would suggest that teachers in Wales have seen their fair share of the latter on occasion since the last round of PISA results.

That the OECD’s response to the Times Education Supplement on the above issue was to confirm “large variation in single (country) ranking positions is likely” hardly fills anyone with confidence.

There is also the concern that PISA offers just a snap shot of one particular cohort of pupils, in much the same way as banding does.  There is no tracking of performance over a long-term period but instead just a brief picture of a particular set of pupils on a particular day of testing.  Again, this does not totally discount the findings but it is something that needs to be considered when developing wide-ranging new policies to be able to fit our education system to a PISA test.

The issues with PISA testing could fill a lengthy blog on their own, both arguments for and against.  However the main point is to accept that they have an important role to play in the ever-increasing globalised economy but that implementing radical reforms without questioning the detail behind the comparisons is, and has proven to be, foolhardy and somewhat short-sighted.  After all the nation who consistently top the PISA rankings, Finland, are the nation that place the least emphasis on doing so.  Their reforms are based on a whole child approach to doing what is right for their communities, not what is right to try to climb these tables.  That they remain high performers is a positive coincidence rather than a deliberate target.

(For more on this debate this programme on Radio 4 which recently examined the flaws in PISA’s approach and what the tests can actually tell us is well worth listening to).

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the objective of the former Education Minister, Leighton Andrews, to show  improvement in 2012 from the 2009 results.  That ambition was downplayed by the Minister and his officials before he left post.  While the First Minister reiterated the aim the current Education Minister gave a more realistic outline of where we may end up.

The reality about any education reform is that it takes time. This is a point that I discussed with the GTCW and Aled Roberts AM in recent ‘In Conversation With….’ pieces that I recorded.  The leading education systems in the world have all been developed over a 20, 30 or 40 year period. Those who have undergone that transformation will say that they are still developing and reforming. The problem is that we often confuse, much to the detriment of children’s education, the time it actually takes to change an education system and the desire to see short-term impacts of reforms alongside a political cycle. I of course appreciate that those politicians in the post of Education Minister, or opposition spokesperson, are working to election deadlines. Rapid improvements are demanded and expected of politicians and political pressures are exerted. However, for all that political bluster, educational change will not work to another’s timeline but at a rate of change that is sustainable and effective.

In Wales we certainly have not had enough time between the doomsday response to the last PISA rankings and next month’s publication. Now I am not convinced that some of the measures put in place by the Welsh Government are the right course of action to help support improving standards. In fact I think the dramatic increase in bureaucracy, workload, standardised testing and league tables that we have seen will act largely as a barrier to our national ambitions. These are measures that have been proven to fail in other nations by hitting staff morale, shrinking the curriculum and placing accountability measures high above collaboration and support. Indeed Finland’s educational missionary, the world-renowned Pasi Salhberg, has already stated that he believes the Welsh approach will fail.

That being said, ignoring my own cynicism, two years is simply not enough time to see the benefits, or indeed negatives, of policy changes on the overall picture of the education system as a whole. With that in mind it is certainly hard to expect to see rapid improvements in next month’s PISA scores. Further to that, the ambition that was stated by the Welsh Government that we are expected to reach PISA’s top 20 nations by 2015 is, to be kind, optimistic. To achieve such a feat Wales would have shown improvement on a level, and at a pace, that would be pretty much unheard of internationally.

There are other factors also acting as barriers to Welsh improvement in December’s publications.  Traditionally mathematics is the weakest PISA subject for Welsh students and on this occasion, unlike in 2009, this is the main subject that has been tested.  There will, inevitably therefore, be an expectation that results will not be as strong.

Of course, in years to come if we do improve we will have to ask the question if that has come about as a result of an improving education system or simply because we have aimed to introduced PISA style testing in schools designed to help us teach to the test? We may very well have pupils that will be better at PISA but not necessarily better educated pupils?

The Education Minister said in a recently Assembly debate that, “PISA is not the be all and end all of measures.”  Let’s all try to keep that in the back of our minds when the rhetoric reaches fever pitch next week.

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