Opinion
International Commentary

Is PISA a Victim of Its Own Success? IES Head Calls for Change

By Mark Schneider — January 31, 2019 5 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE

Data collection for the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment has just ended. When PISA scores are released later this year, they will attract attention across the globe. However, there are several flaws in PISA that need attending to. Getting PISA right is important because it is likely the world’s best-known education assessment.

Coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA has grown from testing students in 32 countries in the year 2000 to 80 countries and subnational “entities” (including some Chinese provinces) in 2018. Designed to monitor national education systems through regular assessments employing a common framework, PISA provides benchmarks against which countries can compare their own performance. The United States has supported PISA since its inception, but we in the U.S. Department of Education are now concerned that PISA is in danger of becoming a victim of its own success.

The United States sees two specific challenges potentially undermining the quality of PISA:

  • First is PISA’s lack of investment in the research and development needed to ensure the quality of such a complex, wide-ranging, and high-profile assessment program.
  • Second is PISA’s short, three-year testing cycle, which made sense in 2000 when PISA started, but, given new testing technologies, is expensive and unnecessary.

We believe that action is needed now to safeguard the future of PISA.

Every large-scale assessment program requires extensive, sustained research and development. For a program with the international visibility of PISA, R&D must be more than basic validation and testing; it should encompass a strategic approach that places R&D at the heart of future planning and creates an infrastructure for validating ideas.

See also: If Students Aren’t Trying on International Tests, Can We Still Compare Countries’ Results?

Rather than recognizing how much R&D is needed to get things right, PISA has been trying to roll out a new “innovative” domain every three years. The sad lesson from PISA’s 2018 “global competence” assessment is that there is great risk in rushing to prepare an assessment for a brand new construct every three years without extensive research conducted over a reasonable time period. Indeed, the global-competence assessment was of such low quality that 40 of the countries taking the digitally based version of PISA simply refused to administer it—the United States among them.

We believe that action is needed now to safeguard the future of PISA."

A fully functioning R&D operation could help ensure quality, by conducting the work needed to validate or modify proposed changes to PISA’s scale, scope, and design. It also could help turn investments in exploratory, one-time assessments of innovative domains into better-thought-out assessments. Clearly, this R&D function would have to have a large degree of independence from the OECD to resist political and competitive pressures—including the lure of innovation—that now buffet PISA.

Development in PISA is not limited to the innovative domains. The three major domains of math, reading, and science literacy require constant research and updating. PISA essentially has two tasks: measure evolving forms of literacy to help assess the mastery of skills needed to prosper in the changing world and produce trend data on levels of skills across time. The first goal requires an assessment framework that constantly evolves; the second requires reliable measurement over time. Without sufficient development work, PISA is in danger of losing the capacity to address either task adequately.

With proper R&D, PISA could measure trends against past performance, while letting the assessment framework evolve so that any changes in the nature of literacies needed could be taken into account. But meeting that challenge will require careful research and development conducted over more time than PISA now allows.

The OECD also needs to reconsider its three-year testing cycle. This cycle made sense in the early days of PISA when countries were first learning about where their education systems stood relative to others, when there were only three subjects tested, and, perhaps most critically, when accurately measuring all subjects was not feasible on every cycle.

Initially, PISA was designed to assess 15-year-old students in-depth in one of three core subjects—mathematics literacy, reading literacy, and scientific literacy—with one of the three administered as the “main” domain and assessed much more accurately than the others. This meant that in-depth data on student performance in any single domain could be reported only every nine years, which was deemed adequate for countries to monitor their education systems.

Assessment technologies have improved markedly since the launch of PISA in 2000. These improvements mean that PISA will be able to provide in-depth data for each of its core subjects after each administration, rather than waiting nine years.

Today, a five-year testing cycle would produce the information countries need almost twice as often as originally envisioned in PISA, but with a lower financial burden and less strain on each country’s capacity to administer the tests. Most importantly, a longer cycle would allow more resources to be devoted to test development and analysis rather than test administration, allow more time to ensure that PISA reporting and the assessments themselves adhere to the highest quality standards, and give OECD more time to vet innovations.

The PISA program is currently spending too much time and too much money on secondary innovative domains and a three-year survey cycle. Those resources should be redirected into research that extends the existing PISA program to investigate system-level educational interventions that can increase our understanding of what policies are associated with improvements in learning outcomes.

OECD members and other PISA participants have long called for changes to safeguard and improve the quality of PISA. It is time for the OECD to acknowledge these calls and to recognize that it is time for a systematic reconsideration of PISA’s design, periodicity, and quality control.

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Facebook and Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Is PISA a Victim of Its Own Success?

Events

School & District Management Live Event Education Week Leadership Symposium
Education Week's Premier Leadership Event for K12 School & District Leaders.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Law & Courts Webinar
The Future of Criminal Justice Reform: A Sphere Education Initiative Conversation
America’s criminal justice system is in crisis and calls for reform are dominating the national debate. Join Cato’s Sphere Education Initiative and Education Week for a webinar on criminal justice and policing featuring the nation’s
Content provided by Cato Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

International Global Test Finds Digital Divide Reflected in Math, Science Scores
New data from the 2019 Trends in International Math and Science Study show teachers and students lack digital access and support.
3 min read
Image of data.
iStock/Getty
International Pre-COVID Learning Inequities Were Already Large Around the World
A new international benchmarking highlights gaps in training for digital learning and other supports that could deepen the challenge for low-income schools during the pandemic.
4 min read
International Part of Global Trend, 1 in 3 U.S. High Schoolers Felt Disconnected From School Before Pandemic
UNESCO's annual report on global education progress finds countries need to make more effort to include marginalized students, particularly in the United States.
4 min read
International How Schools in Other Countries Have Reopened
Ideas from Australia, Denmark, and Taiwan can help American district and school leaders as they shape their reopening plans.
11 min read
Students at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan, perform The Little Mermaid in full costume and masks.
Students at the Taipei American School in Taipei, Taiwan, perform The Little Mermaid in full costume and masks.
Photo courtesy of Dustin Rhoades/Taipei American School