Opinion
International Commentary

What We’re Getting Right With PISA

By Michele Bruniges — February 06, 2019 4 min read
21 Bruniges comm Article Getty

Over the past two decades, PISA has become the global yardstick for measuring educational success, with more than 80 countries regularly comparing quality, equity, and efficiency in their schooling systems. As chair of PISA’s Governing Board, I am responding to a recent suggestion that the OECD should change the frequency with which it produces international comparisons.

In essence, PISA tests the knowledge and skills of 15-year-old students through metrics that are internationally agreed upon. It links them with contextual data from students, teachers, schools, and systems to understand performance differences. It then harnesses the power of collaboration to act on the data, by creating shared points of reference and by highlighting opportunities for peers to learn from one another.

But the real value of PISA—the Program for International Student Assessment—lies in the global platform for knowledge sharing and collaboration that it established. It attracts the world’s best thinkers, and mobilizes thousands of educators and scientists from the participating countries, to explore what we should expect from students and how we can test that, and what we can learn from performance variation and the policies and practices that different countries pursue. High-performing school systems in Canada, Estonia, or Japan, or rapid improvers like Peru, Portugal, or Vietnam, have become popular destinations for peer-learning and further research.

More frequent assessments provide policymakers with more up-to-date information.”

PISA exemplifies the power of international collaboration. No single country has been able to mount an assessment as relevant, reliable, and innovative as countries were able to develop jointly through PISA. Leading experts in participating countries establish the scope and nature of the assessments. Governments of the participating countries direct this effort based on shared, policy-driven interests.

Some of those decisions are not easy, and many involve negotiation and compromise. What is the right balance between continuity and innovation to ensure the reliable measurement of progress, while retaining the capacity of PISA to adjust to new developments and anticipating future needs? In the digital age, reading literacy has become a very different construct from how it was defined when PISA first tested reading in 2000.

How can the measures be as broad and comparable as possible while retaining relevance in national contexts? Students may learn different things in different countries, or at different points in their schooling career, and there is great variability in the cultural and curricular context of countries.

What is the right balance between the size of samples and the quality and depth of measurement, both of which have cost implications? And what is the right balance between measuring outcomes and measuring co-variates of outcomes that can help explain those outcomes?

One of those design decisions, which governments are regularly discussing, concerns the frequency with which PISA should be conducted. More frequent assessments provide policymakers with more up-to-date information and a more reliable assessment of educational progress. They establish better links between intended, implemented, and achieved policies; and offer a greater scope for the development of new and innovative assessment domains and methods. For example, it took PISA three testing cycles—or nine years—to establish the seminal assessment of collaborative problem-solving that OECD—the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—and participating countries successfully implemented in 2015. But, obviously, greater frequency involves greater costs and greater burdens on schools.

When governments reviewed that balance last, in 2014, a clear majority of the member countries of the OECD favored PISA testing every three years as the optimal trade-off between the competing demands. The United States was among the countries favoring a three-year cycle, and then-U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan played an active role in advancing PISA and fostering peer-learning and collaboration among the participating countries for each of the assessments during his tenure.

Obviously, governments change, and the views of governments change, and both the demands on PISA, as well as the methods available to PISA, evolve. That is why governments will continue to come together to reassess all the design decisions in PISA on a regular basis, including the frequency of the cycles, in order to build a consensus of what will serve their countries best. The next such review is planned for 2021.

In the face of education challenges greater than ever before, it may be wiser to accelerate our efforts to learn from the world’s most rapidly improving education systems, rather than slowing down the rate at which we measure educational progress. We compare the rate of economic growth among our countries every three months, and the evolution of unemployment every six months, so seeing how well we prepare our students for their future every three years doesn’t seem exaggerated.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 13, 2019 edition of Education Week as Let’s Embrace PISA’s Success

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