PISA Reflections

6 Jan

There was an inevitable media frenzy following the publication of the latest PISA results.  Who can blame journalists when these tests have been held up by governments across the world to justify reforms, often for ideological reasons.

No one pretends PISA 2013 was positive news for Wales, or indeed any nation in the UK.  That said, given the almost divine status they have achieved in the eyes of some advisors; reporters and politicians, it is only right we look closer at some of the concerns with the process.

There is a growing body of evidence casting doubt on the methodology that underpins the PISA test.  Teachers, employers and academics are all beginning to question the tablet of stone that PISA results are written on.

In the first instance there are concerns at the different cultural diversities in dealing with such a wide ranging test.  Does the test evaluate truly the mathematics, reading and science skills of pupils across the world, or evaluate them against a background of cultural and societal niches.

The fact this is a test conducted in 65 different nations naturally throws up translation issues.  There is a genuine debate about the interpretations and conclusions pupils will have in reading questions phrased differently in different languages.  This is of course not the fault of the OECD, the organisation behind the test.  Papers have to be translated and there is no such thing as a word perfect translation.  That, however, does not change the principle of the concern.  There are questions here also about the inherent bias for nations, such as Finland, whose language has a simpler structure than English with its irregular patterns.

How exactly does the sampling skew any results?  Can you really compare the results of a huge city region like Shanghai with more rural areas across the world?  What about the subjects that are sampled? Can you determine the success or failure of an entire education system based solely on three subject areas?  How questions relate to the current curriculum being taught is also open to creating wide variations in results.

Does the above mean that we should ignore PISA’s findings?  No not at all.  Everyone in education sit up and take notice of PISA, but as part of an overall package of measurements not as the be all and end all of our evaluation system.  Unfortunately across the world these tests are being used to drive wholesale reforms.  Indeed the Welsh Government has overhauled the education system here to ensure that we are more PISA focussed.  Even if we climb the PISA ladder in future there is no telling if that approach will have unintended consequences on our wider education and community ambitions.

PISA tells us only a limited number of things.  They do not say if there’s consistent progress only providing a snapshot of performance from one particular cohort, at one particular time, using one particular test.  PISA will never tell us if we are creating happy; socially responsible or creative pupils.  They will not help show if we are developing people who will become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, artists or community leaders.

In our response to PISA we do need to question not just what type of education system we want but what type of society we envisage for Wales.  In introducing the Foundation Phase, a system whose first cohort of children is yet to be evaluated by PISA, we embarked on a new style of teaching.  It’s designed to ensure pupils had a space to think; to develop essential critical thinking, creative and problem solving skills.  It’s also a system centred in engaging children; allowing them a freedom to learn, making school a place to want to be.  This is a stark contrast to the ethos of education of, for example, South Korea.  While children in Seoul may currently be high amongst PISA rankings the school routine of punishingly long hours; excessive testing and extra study well into the evening, would be abhorrent to many Welsh parents.  Indeed, these pupils languish at the very bottom of indicators evaluating the happiness of school children.

Finland, who may have slipped below East Asian nations year, still remain the highest performing Western country for both reading and science and continue to perform well in mathematics, all with a system based on teacher and pupil wellbeing at its core.  This shows there is another way to the data driven rigid conformity of the East.  While we can, and should, look at their system we must also recognise that in many areas such as gender equality, UN happiness index and income equality, Wales is far behind the progress of our Scandinavian counterparts.

Neither end of the spectrum will you find a system that can simply be transported to Wales.  We have to find a Welsh solution by evaluating what works in other countries, but recognising the specific challenges not only within our schools but within our society.  What works elsewhere will not always work for us here.  We all need to pay attention to what PISA tells us about education, but in doing so we must also accept the flaws in its approach, and the realities of what it isn’t telling us about the cultural drivers of performance.

 

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