Assessment Opinion

How to Turn Low Performance Around: Lessons From PISA

By Robert Rothman — February 18, 2016 3 min read
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Authors of this blog (see here, for example) have frequently argued for all students to develop deeper learning competencies in order to succeed in higher education, the workforce, and democratic society. They have noted that a two-tiered education system, in which advantaged students have access to opportunities for deeper learning while those without advantages are fed a steady diet of basic skills, is no longer tenable.

But what about students who struggle with even the basic skills? What needs to happen to enable them to learn deeply?

A new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) offers an analysis of the students who perform at low levels on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which OECD administers every three years in some 65 countries. The report makes some compelling recommendations for improving performance for all students, particularly those who score low.

As a test administered in a single sitting, PISA does not measure all the deeper learning competencies. But it is designed to gauge whether students can apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems, a key deeper learning skill. Those who perform at the top levels can demonstrate the ability to think critically and reason effectively, and a longitudinal study of Canadian students found that those who performed at the top level in reading were much more likely than their peers who scored lower to go on to college and gain employment.

By contrast, the new report states, students who perform at low levels are more likely to drop out of school, and their skills are not likely to improve as they grow older. Poor performers are less likely to enter high-paying jobs, and poor performance is linked to poorer health and lower levels of social and political participation.

Over all, the report found, about a fourth of the fifteen-year-olds tested in the OECD countries (the industrialized West, Japan, and Australia) performed at low levels in at least one of the three subjects tested--mathematics, reading, and science--and 12 percent performed at low levels on all three. In the United States, 29 percent of students were low performers in at least one subject and 12 percent were low performers in all three.

As might be expected, student background is associated with low performance, in all countries. Socio-economically disadvantaged students and those from immigrant backgrounds were more likely to be low performers than advantaged students and native-born students. But school factors also played a role. Students who did not attend preschool or who repeated a grade were more likely to be low performers, as were those enrolled in a vocational program.

In addition, the report found, school practices also were associated with performance. Students in schools whose principals said teachers had low expectations for students, those with high levels of teacher absenteeism, and those with ability grouping practices were also more likely to be low performing than students whose schools did not exhibit those characteristics.

(It’s important to note that these are correlations--they identify characteristics associated with students who perform at low level, but they do not imply that these factors caused the low performance. It might be, for example, that low-performers are placed disproportionately in vocational programs; the vocational programs might not lower performance.)

The report makes a number of recommendations to reduce the incidence of low performance, such as reduce barriers to learning, provide remedial support, provide targeted support to socio-economically disadvantaged students and immigrant students, and limit the use of student sorting. While these steps might not eliminate low performance, they can mitigate it.

The first step, though, is to recognize the challenge. As schools, districts, and states move to provide opportunities for deep learning for all students, they need to ensure that all students, particularly those who are struggling in the current system, receive the support they need.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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