PISA test and Australia - what does it mean?
8th December 2010

In the following and on the ABC's The Drum website I discuss the 2009 PISA test results.

A test for educational assessment

  What do the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results tell us and how much weight should they be given?

The first thing to note, after years of educational success being measured by how much money was invested, is that the OECD-funded PISA test represents a change in focus for governments, bureaucrats and educationalists.

Like the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study tests (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) the PISA test, beginning in 2000 and covering literacy, numeracy and science involving 15-year-old students, measures educational outcomes.

Similar to NAPLAN, Australia’s national literacy and numeracy tests at years, 3, 5, 7, and 9, the belief is that it’s not enough to invest in education and hope that standards will improve. The focus is on accountability by measuring how effective schools and school systems are by ranking them in terms of performance.

Linked to measuring performance is an attempt to identify the characteristics of stronger-performing education systems and to use such information to lift results and strengthen outcomes in under-performing schools and education systems.

The second thing to note, as argued by a number of education measurement experts, like Dr Margaret Wu at the University of Melbourne and US experts associated with the National Research Council, is that tests are not perfect, both in terms of what they seek to measure and their methodology.

Tests, as suggested by the aphorism ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, are open to human error and bias and while appearing scientific and objective are often unreliable due to sampling error or other methodological flaws.

There is also the problem of linking cause and effect and assuming that because some factors are associated that they are directly linked in some way. Standardised tests like PISA and NAPLAN suggest there is a strong connection between under-performance and students’ socioeconomic status (SES).

Put simply, many argue that how well students perform depends on their background - low SES students are destined to failure while middle to high SES students always do well. Ignored is that the link between SES and achievement is not as clear cut as suggested. Equally as important are factors like student motivation, having a disciplined and academic classroom environment, having high expectations of students and teacher effectiveness.

Taken on face value the 2009 PISA test is both good and bad news for Australia. The bad news is that Australian students have gone backwards when comparing the 2009 results with what was achieved in 2000 - a fall of 13 points.

It should also concern that the 2009 PISA results for reading, the main focus of the test, show that while only 9 per cent of girls are below the minimum requirement, the figure for boys jumps to 20 per cent.

As the report notes, much has been done over recent years to positively discriminate in favour of girls on the basis that the traditional curriculum favoured boys. Maybe, such attempts have been too effective and more needs to be done to support boys’ education.

It’s also the case, while Australia performs well above the average in the 2009 PISA test, that we are outperformed by a number of education systems including Shanghai-China, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand and Japan.

The good news is that we are well above the OECD average and, compared to most other OECD countries, we are successful in helping so-called disadvantaged students achieve stronger results than otherwise might be expected.

While Julia Gillard, when education minister, and Barry McGaw, the head of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA), argue that Australia’s education system is characterised by inequality the PISA results suggest we are high quality/high equity.

How much weight should be given to the PISA test? There is no denying the fact that tests like PISA, TIMSS and Australia’s NAPLAN are front and centre when it comes to the media’s treatment of education and policy debates and decisions at the government level.

One of the main justifications for the Rudd/Gillard education revolution is that Australia does not perform as well as it should in international tests and, as a result, the nation’s productivity and international competitiveness suffer.

As previously mentioned, though, caution should be taken when interpreting the results of such tests, as they are open to error and faulty design. There is also the point that standardised, high-risk tests are having a significant adverse impact on schools and classrooms.

Teachers complain that testing has become an end in itself and, instead of teaching, that much of their time and energy is now spent individually monitoring, evaluating and tracking every student in the class. Not only has the curriculum been narrowed as teachers are forced to teach to the test, but also teachers have been turned into bean counters.

Finally, and notwithstanding the fact that organisations like the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and educational measurement experts like Barry McGaw, define education in terms of what can be dissected and measured, there is an urgent need to recognise, value and appreciate the more important cultural role of education.

The focus on improved productivity and international competiveness by raising test scores should not ignore the reality that education in its fullest sense deals with emotional, spiritual and moral issues that define us as humans and determine the nature of the society in which we live.




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PISA test and Australia - what does it mean?
8th December 2010
In the following and on the ABC's The Drum website I discuss the 2009 PISA test results.A test for educational assessment  What do the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PI...

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