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PISA - Could do better

The end of term has brought me a little more time and with it the opportunity to write some brief comments about the PISA tests (Programme for International Student Assessment) and the global educational league tables produced from them every 3 years.  The news for the UK, it seems, is not good with the nation’s performance largely unchanged from the previous tests in 2006 and 2009 with dynamic Asian nations zooming ahead of the sluggish Western states.  In Maths, Reading and Science the UK stands at 26th, 23rd and 21st respectively out of 65 participating countries although statistical limitations mean that we could easily be 4 places higher or lower in any given list.  The UK’s key findings can be found here http://www.oecd.org/pisa/keyfindings/PISA-2012-results-UK.pdf

All Head Masters are accustomed to league tables given their annual August experience when the GCSE and A level results emerge; it is fun therefore to watch the same feelings and arguments appear on a national scale and I offer you some tried and tested ways of dealing with PISA disappointment sprinkled liberally with my own thoughts. 

  1. Compare ourselves with less challenging opposition.  The USA came 36th in Maths, although some individual states did much better, and Sweden, once one of the Scandinavian doyennes of educationalists everywhere, fell to 38th.  Both the US and Sweden seem to be doing OK in life in general so perhaps all will be well.  (My thoughts: this is surely a direct route to complacency.  There seems no doubt that UK students will have to compete with students from all across the world in an increasingly global jobs market.)


  1. Question the link between having 15 year olds who are good at Maths and desirable outcomes for society as a whole.  The PISA tests are run by the OECD, which is interested in economic growth and not much else.  The correlation between economic growth and a high-performing education system is not as strong as one might expect; South Korea, a nation poorly supplied with natural resources, has certainly prospered through developing a well-educated work force but elsewhere the link seems more tenuous.  One might, for example, argue that creativity or entrepreneurship is just as important for economic growth but neither attribute is tested by PISA.  (My thoughts: there are lots of other attributes needed for success in life but being able to solve basic Maths problems must be quite a good predictor of success in many fields needed in advanced economies.  On the other hand education is about personal development, identifying and nurturing talents and preparing people to make a contribution to society in ways which extend well beyond economic activity.)


  1. Attack the statistics.  A number of complaints have been levelled against the statistical methodology developed by PISA, suggesting that the numbers of students taking the tests are not big enough or pointing out that the students do not all do the same tests but rather a selection from a larger group of questions.  Perhaps differences in language preclude a direct comparison between nations given that in order to solve the problems students must first extract the relevant information from a textual question and this may be more straightforward for some students than others.  Famously, Finnish has an entirely regular spelling system and it is easier to learn Finnish if you are a Finn than it is to learn English if you are, well, English.  This latter point certainly seems to skew some of the Reading results.  (My thoughts: in any large survey statistical doubts always feature but the PISA tests are probably as good as they can be; this looks like sour grapes.)


  1. Attack the test.  Perhaps doing well at PISA tests tells us that a nation is good at PISA tests rather than necessarily being good at Maths.  (My thoughts: the PISA tests are a reasonable test of problem solving and arithmetic and do tell you something about mathematical ability.  Try the tests by clicking here http://www.oecd.org/pisa/test/ .  If you have done well then reflect upon the fact that only 12% of UK 15 year olds gained Levels 5 or 6.)


  1. Attack the opposition.  Grimy accusations of cheating swirl around like smog above a big city.  Shanghai came top of the world in Maths but is perhaps not representative of China as a whole; the untested rural regions would have been likely to perform less well given that so many Shanghai residents are affluent, aspirational and well-educated.  (My thoughts:  Shanghai, a region of China with a larger population than some other countries, still came top; we must be able to learn something from their success.  Perhaps the competitive nature of Asian education means that Chinese students try harder or perhaps Chinese Maths teachers have genuinely hit upon better teaching methods at least for the topics assessed by PISA.)


  1. Teach to the test.  Years of experience of league tables have taught Head Teachers that a certain amount of teaching to the test is essential to avoid embarrassment; perhaps now is the time for the curriculum to be distorted to allow plenty of preparation time for the next set of PISA tests due to be administered in 2015.  We could spend all the available curriculum time on Maths, English and Science and simply abandon all other subjects.  (My thoughts: In South Korea students seem to spend almost their whole lives studying http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-25187993 and this is not a price worth paying for a good PISA result.  I am zealous in believing that a rich mix of subjects and skills is necessary for students to fully develop their talents.)


  1. Boycott the tests.  If poor test results are demoralising for students, teachers, politicians and the UK population at large perhaps we should stop taking the tests, sparing ourselves the psychological damage of national humiliation every 3 years.  (My thoughts: transparency and honesty are usually the best policy; we clearly need to do better as a nation in this area and hiding won’t help.  We don’t stop playing cricket series against Australia just because.. oh, hold on a minute.)


  1. Launch a fresh set of educational initiatives.  ‘Education, education, education’ whether intoned by Tony Blair or John Major seems to have had no effect on the UK’s PISA performance despite the huge investment of time and money.  (My thoughts: the last thing that teachers and schools need at the moment is a fresh initiative; stability and incremental improvement are far more likely to produce a higher league table position when the next set of results, from tests taken in 2015, is released in 2016.  The current reforms towards terminal examinations at GCSE and A level are likely to boost the performance of the already high attaining students without helping the more modest achievers, suggesting that the 2016 results will show no overall change in PISA performance.)


  1. Happiness is what counts.  There is an intriguing inverse correlation between PISA Maths performance and levels of student happiness.  South Korea performs well in the PISA tests but the students are placed bottom in the ranking of how happy they are; equally Peruvian children are the happiest at school but are woeful performers in the Maths test.  (My thoughts: it seems unlikely that there is a causal link between a strong Maths performance and unhappiness at UK schools and therefore our Maths performance could easily be boosted without significantly reducing happiness levels.)


  1. Introduce an international handicapping system.  Students in countries which fare less well should be given extra time, support and opportunities to help them compete in the work place against their Asian counterparts.  (My thoughts: in a global jobs market I am not sure that this is ever going to work.)

Happy Christmas!

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