I have written a number of times about my feelings with regards standardized testing. (You can read some of my previous postings here – Some thoughts on Data , Building Test Machines). Having worked internationally in schools in the Middle East I am particularly aware of standardized testing and the weight put on the results from such testing. Within the UAE there is a focus on ensuring that education is of an international standard with the measure of this international standard being the results from PISA and also from EMSA testing regimes. As a result individual schools and their teachers are expected to pore over the EMSA results and analyse what the results mean. I feel that this focus on a standardized testing regime such as PISA is misplaced as how can we on one hand seek differentiated learning tailored to students as individuals while measuring all students with the a single standardized measure.
As such it was with great interest I read the article in the TES titled, “Ignore Pisa entirely,’ says world expert”. The article refers to comments provided by Professor Yong Zhao who I was lucky to see at an SSAT conference event back in 2009. Back then I found Professor Zhao to be both engaging and inspiring as a presenter, with some of his thoughts echoing some of my own plus also shaping some of the thoughts and ideas that I came to develop. Again I find myself in agreement with Professor Zhao. I particularly liked his comment regarding the need for “creativity, not uniformity”.
I feel the focus on PISA is the result of valuing what is measurable as opposed to measuring what is valued. Measuring student performance in a standardized test is easy, with various statistical methods then allowing for what appears to be complex analysis of the data, therefore lending us to be able to prove or disprove various theories or beliefs. Newspapers and other publishers then sensationalize the data and create causal explanations. Education in Finland was heralded to be excellent recently as a result of the results from PISA testing. Teaching in the UAE was deemed to be below the world average however better than most other Middle East countries. Did PISA really provide a measure of the quality of education? I think not!
Can education be boiled down to a simple test? Is a students ability to do well in the PISA test what we value? Does it take into consideration the students pathway through learning as the pathway differs from one country to another? Does it take into consideration local needs? Does it take into consideration the cultural, religious or other contexts within which the learning is taking place? Does it take into account students as individuals? Now I acknowledge that it may be difficult or even impossible to measure the above however does that mean that we accept a lesser measure such as PISA just because it is easier?
There may be some place for the PISA results in education however I feel we would be much better focusing on the micro level, on our own individual schools and on seeking to continually improve, as opposed to what Professor Zhao described as little more than a “beer drinking contest”.