xmlns:og='http://ogp.me/ns#' The Font of Noelage: The Misleading Power of PISA

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Misleading Power of PISA

Prime Minister Gillard has had an obsession with educational measurement ever since she went to New York and noted the heavy standardised testing regime imposed on all schools in that state by it Education Director, Joel Klein. She was so impressed that she came back and set up NAPLAN and a Myschool website.

Joel Klein is a lawyer. His standarised testing policy, in which failing schools were closed and their principals and staffs sacked, has since been criticised and repudiated by such luminaries in education as Dr Diane Ravitch, author of the best seller, “The death and rise of the great American school system” which provided evidence to show that standardised testing was ruining American education. Dr Ravitch, who helped introduce the No Child Left Behind programme, which emphasised Literacy and Numeracy and standardised testing, now says "Failure in school is due to poverty, not poor teaching."

Dr Ravitch is supported by the Cambridge University's comprehensive Review of Primary Education which also condemned a major focus on standardised testing schemes such as NAPLAN.
Joel Klein, by the way, is now in England working for Rupert Murdoch's online education and standardised testing and tutorial programme. It is expected to bring in six billion dollars a year. Rupert certainly knows where the real money is in education. (UPDATE: It brought in over 13 million pounds in 2014.)

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Gillard has appealed to our national sporting instincts and told us that the main game, The International Premiership of Schooling, is for Australia to be at the top of the PISA school rankings.

But what exactly is PISA. It is a Programme for International Student Assessment, which was created by the OECD. PISA, based in Paris, tests a random sample of 15 year olds in a number of countries to see how well equipped they are to face the big wide world of work. It tests subjects which are easily testable like mathematics, reading and science. PISA tested maths in 2003, science in 2006 and reading in 2009. This year some randomly selected students in 30 countries were tested in mathematics plus optional computer based assessments in mathematics and reading. The tests are not based on any particular national curriculum but the bean counters in Paris say PISA provides a powerful tool to influence government policies. Nobody has bothered to explain why? Indeed, nobody has bothered to ask why?

PISA seems to be famous for being famous at ranking what it says are the education achievements of various countries which are based on random samples of fifteen year olds. Unfortunately, it is people who do not really know very much about education who are always very impressed by these sorts of data. Our Prime Minister, also a lawyer, is so impressed by PISA that she wants us to go to the top of its educational premiership ladder.

The countries ahead of us on the PISA list are several Asian countries and Finland. Finland does not have any standardised tests and children do not start formal learning until they are seven years old.

The top ranking Asian countries achieve their high results mainly because many Asian parents pay thousands of dollars each year for their children to spend hours and hours attending special tuition classes outside of normal school hours.

Neither Finland, nor the top ranking Asian countries, have indigenous populations or multi cultured societies where significant numbers speak the national language only as a second language. These are important factors that will always impinge on Australia's test results.

Some of PISA's top ranked countries such as Shanghai and Honk Kong are urban economic zones, as is Singapore. If we could have Canberra representing Australia then we would be indeed be flying high on the PISA table of success.

Unfortunately, in Australia, education is subject to political whim. NAPLAN results, and now the desire to win the PISA premiership, are determining government education policy. Of course literacy, numeracy and science are vitally important, but what sort of citizens should our school's be producing?

Well, business leaders and academics, such as those at Cambridge University, invariably say that employers want people who have the qualities of leadership, responsibility, accountability, adaptability, communication, initiative and self direction, risk taking, resilience, creativity, teamwork, cross cultural and problem solving skills.

In other words we do not want, or need, schools that are intensely focused on literacy and numeracy scores. We want schools that enable students to reach their full potential. This is the Information Era, a time of extremely rapid change. We want students who have developed the necessary skills of enquiry and data analysis to be able to find out what they need to know when they need to know it. We want students with a positive outlook on society and on their fellow citizens.

Many of the children in Year One classes today will, in the 2020s, be engaged in occupations that do not yet exist. Social scientists predict that today's young people will grow up to work in at least six different vocations during their working life. This is not simply changing one employer for another employer in an allied industry, this is taking on six completely different occupations, each requiring a different knowledge base and vastly different skills.

Prime Minister Gillard's pursuit of PISA glory is her response to the Gonski Report. But Gonski wanted six billion dollars to assist stressed out and under resourced teachers, mainly working in run down schools in low socio economic areas, coping with dysfunctional families and children with a variety of intellectual, emotional and physical problems.

It seems nobody asked the teachers how the Gonski money should be spent.

Now, the misleading power of PISA has given Australian education a very different slant.

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