On December 3rd 2013 – PISA Day – OECD published its 2012 test results in maths, reading and science for a sample of 15 year olds in 65 countries, together with attendant league tables and analysis. Except that politicians and media mostly targeted the league tables and ignored OECD’s analysis, preferring to substitute their own. As with PISA 2009, 2006 and 2003, this was heavy on blame and naive attributions of educational cause and economic effect, and light on acknowledgement of PISA’s limitations and the contextual, cultural and demographic factors that OECD itself is careful to emphasise. There was also much talk of the need to recover lost educational rigour, which one commentator tellingly spelled ‘rigor’.
These tests are undeniably important in the snapshots they provide of selected aspects of the UK’s educational performance in relation to that of other OECD member and partner countries. If there’s evidence that standards are stagnating or falling then we must act. And because primary schools lay the foundations for later attainment we hope that CPRT associates and followers will be as keen as their secondary colleagues to inform themselves about PISA’s outcomes and implications. The links below provide both findings and comment. Here’s one finding to take us beyond the league tables: in maths, differences in performance at age 15 within countries are often greater – the equivalent of over seven years of schooling – than differences between them. Sounds familiar? Those with long memories will recall that Cockcroft diagnosed the seven-year maths gap in England and Wales back in 1982, and among 11 year olds, not 15. Successful countries may not close the gap but they reduce the variation and increase the proportion of high attainers.
So it’s time for Westminster to grow up and give us something more enlightened than Punch and Judy exchanges and exhortations to copy whichever country or jurisdiction, regardless of its politics and culture, happens for now to head the PISA league table. If Westminster continues to prefer its own myths, nostrums and playground taunts to proper analysis, including that provided by OECD itself, we might well ask ‘What’s the point of PISA?’
But ‘time to grow up’ has a deeper resonance, for each successive wave of PISA panic produces a reflex tightening of the screws on children’s time for the rich, balanced and no less rigorous education which not only serves them best but also, as it happens, supports the drive to raise standards; their time, indeed, for childhood.
We hope that primary professionals and school leaders, who lay the foundations for what PISA tests and, crucially, for what it does not test, will study the evidence and reclaim the debate. Start with the links below…
- Read OECD’s overview of the results and analysis for PISA 2012:
- Read OECD’s summary of the UK results and how they should be interpreted:
- Read the Policy Consortium’s response to the cross-party spat and what PISA 2012 offers apart from league tables:
- Read Warwick Mansell’s critique of PISA’s ‘objective’ status:
- Read why the Brookings Institute thinks we should be cautious in the conclusions we draw from Shanghai’s success:
- Read why Finnish expert Pasi Sahlberg believes Finland should stick to enlightened policies and not panic in the face of its apparent standards dip:
- Read Diane Ravitch’s historical take on the US results:
- Read Robin Alexander’s paper, anticipating PISA 2012 but also referring to the revised national curriculum and other recent initiatives, on the uses and abuses of international educational comparison: