PISA: It’s Like An “Olympics of the Brain”

20th July 2012

So instead I shall move on to asking, what is the nature if this spinning and why is it a problem?  Well, PISA is a test taken by thousands of schools in over 65 countries. By having students of the same age sit the same test we can work out – in the fairest way possible – whose kids are the best.  It’s like an “Olympics-of-the-Brain”.  At least, that’s the theory.

In 2001 when the first set of results were released, no-one really cared.  Our standing in the maths, science and english tests were about as widely known as our rank for flat water canoeing at the 2008 Olympics [we came third, by the way].  The only country who got a bit upset was Germany and that was because the results showed how horribly the poorest students in their country were doing compared to poorer students in similar countries.

The first real panics were during the 2004 series when Japan went backwards. This was a kick in the teeth as they had done well the first time around and had been a bit gloaty. Red-faced they went into panic mode, getting rid of ‘low stakes’ exams (which had somehow caused this problem even though they hadn’t been causing that problem just four years previously) and the focus on ‘high standards’ and ‘strict curriculum’ began.

This pattern has continued and intensified since 2008 with other countries jumping on the we-hate-our-schools-because-of-PISA bandwagon, as is documented in a very interesting OECD report on “The Policy Impact of Pisa“. What is intimated at, though never directly stated, is that PISA results  seem to be leapt on by governments who had already intimated that they wanted certain types of (usually) market reform, OR new governments in whose interest it is to use PISA to rubbish previous administrations.  This would potentially explain why the PISA results were rarely mentioned by Labour (even when we did reasonably well) but have become a more common political pawn in recent years.

It’s an interesting paper; certainly one to look at and an area which I hope they keep researching. If they don’t, I might!