You know, I have to admit, all has been pretty quiet on the education front recently. Although there has been a bit of noise made about report cards here in Nova Scotia, and a bit of concern about the removal of some academic accolades for students in schools out West, the latter part of 2013 has been relatively quiet. Where 2011 and 2012 saw such head line grabbers as the “No zero” policy, budget cuts and what seemed like a constant barrage of attacks against the teaching profession in general, 2013 has been, to some extent, blissful.
Well, folks, mark December 3rd on your calendar. Because that’s when the “educational expert” bombast and table thumping will begin anew.
Because on December 3rd, PISA is scheduled to release its 2012 test results.
For those of you who may not know, PISA stands for the Programme for International Student Assessment. Essentially, it is an examination that is written every three years by somewhere around a half million 15-year-old students in over 60 countries around the world. Developed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development it purports to test ability in math, reading and science. The OECD takes the results from the PISA and ranks countries against each other. It then publishes these rankings.
And that’s where the fun begins.
You see, if a country scores high in the PISA, they become the model after which everyone else wants to build their system. In 2010, Finland became the darlings of the education world, as their PISA scores from 2009 were shown to be impressively high, a trend that had been occurring over a number of PISA cycles. Pasi Sahlberg’s book, Finnish Lessons, became a must read for policy makers, and educational commentators of every stripe (including this one) were prying suggestions out of their system when looking for ways to improve education. Contrarily, to score low on the PISA is somewhat of a black eye for a country’s education system. This was the case for the US when it placed well out of the top ten in the 2009 results. (Last place that year belonged to Kyrgyzstan.)
PISA rankings, however, can be broken down even further, and districts within countries can be compared. We saw this here in Canada in 2010 when the PISA results became a “mine is better than yours” crowing match amongst the Canadian provinces, with two of Canada’s richest Provinces, Alberta and Ontario, coming out on top. And, as always, when ever there are numbers attached to education, there are those who spin them to further an agenda of self-serving changes to the system. Certainly, here at home, local think tanks and their supporters were quick to cite PISA scores as evidence that schools needed “fixing”, despite Nova Scotia’s strong showing.
Well, before Tuesday rolls around, and our schools are again paraded or berated based on their PISA results, a word of caution. Just like last time, PISA will provide us with some interesting and informative numbers about the education system here in Nova Scotia. And, just like last time, there will be those who interpret these data to push agendas and sway public opinion. But at the end of the day, the PISA is a small piece in a much larger puzzle.
Large scale standardized tests may be popular providers of media sound bites, and make easy ammunition for those who like to spin data, but they can also narrow educational focus, and take precious resources away from the classroom. My gravest concern with them, however, is that they cause reactionary decisions to be made about education. Somehow, a score on a test becomes not just a measure of how kids did in that subject on that day, but rather how the education system is doing overall. Scores in this PISA, which was focused on mathematics, must be taken in context.
Tests can only measure what they measure, and there is much more to public education than I have ever seen encapsulated in any test, no matter how revered.
High results on PISA do not mean we can stop looking for ways to get better at meeting the needs of our students any more than low results mean we should shred our entire system. The results are, at the end of the day, simply another lens through which to view education.
I hope on Tuesday, everyone remembers that.