Lessons, and Caution, in PISA

By Sean Cavanagh — June 03, 2009 2 min read
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One of the most publicized and scrutinized tools for gauging U.S. students’ progress on international tests is the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA. Yesterday, a pair of researchers urged caution in drawing broad connections between specific education policies described in the reports that accompany the test and student performance in the United States and other countries.

The two speakers gave presentations at a forum called “What We Can Learn From PISA,” held in Washington and hosted by the National Center for Education Statistics, the main federal office charged with crunching school data. All the speakers’ talks have now been posted online.

Laura Hamilton, a senior behavior scientist at RAND, examined the link between various national school policies and achievement, which were presented in the 2006 PISA results. The PISA report, for instance, finds that ability grouping within schools to have a negative connection with student performance. Another conclusion is that public posting of school-level achievement data appears to have a positive impact. “Causal interpretations of these findings could lead to several concrete policy recommendations,” Hamilton notes in her presentation. But policymakers should be wary of drawing those connections, she said. PISA collects much of its information about school policies through surveys, which can be unreliable. It also collects information about education practices for a single year, while the test is measuring the educational skills that 15-year-olds have acquired over time.

Another speaker, Robert Hauser, of the University of Wisconsin, concluded that the PISA assessment, while valuable, “over-reaches in [an] effort to draw policy implications.” Hauser examines the PISA report’s findings about the connection between students’ socioeconomic status and their science performance. He finds that the connection between students’ economic background and their achievement, as described in the report, is not as strong as is what is presented in the report.

I’m summing up these presentations very broadly. Luckily, you can review them yourself at the Web site listed above.

You’ll also find several other presentations included. Longtime science curriculum expert Rodger Bybee provides “An Insider’s View of the PISA Science Assessment.” Former NCES Commissioner Mark Schneider examines the benefits and challenges of international benchmarking (see also our EdWeek story on this topic, and Schneider’s own opinion piece from a few months ago). Former NCES Deputy Jack Buckley re-examines the connection between students’ interest, or lack of it, in science and their performance. And Audrey Champagne delves into how PISA assesses “science literacy.” Lots of other viewpoints are available at the site, too.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.