Putting Education Reform To The Test

What To Know About Tomorrow’s International Test Results

PISA is a once-every-three-years exam of about 500,000 students around the globe.

shinealight / Flickr

PISA is a once-every-three-years exam of about 500,000 students around the globe.

Tomorrow marks the latest round of international education testing results, this time for the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA.

PISA is a test given every three years to a sample of about 500,000 15-year-old students in 60 countries. Those students represents about 90 percent of the world’s economy, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the group which oversees the exam.

The two-hour exam checks math, science, reading and other skills, though students receive different combinations of tests.

Similar to the National Assessment of Educational Progress given to U.S. students, researchers will be able to compare a country’s PISA results against another. PISA results leaked in Great Britain over the weekend, and leaders are already wringing their hands over the scores.

This year’s PISA results will break out the performance of U.S. states, so that we might know how Florida matches up with the rest of the world. PISA is also useful because researchers analyze common trends among the top-performing countries to figure out which policies might have more impact on student performance.

But an apples-to-apples comparison is not always apt. The Brookings Institution notes that top-performing Shanghai — whose results are broken out from other Chinese provinces — is demographically different than the rest of the country:

How should we react to what will surely be another stellar performance by Shanghai?  First, everyone should place Shanghai’s scores in proper perspective.  Shanghai has an economically and culturally elite population with systems in place to make sure that students who may perform poorly are not allowed into public schools.  Second, the media should not present Shanghai’s scores as if they are indicative of China’s national performance in education.  They aren’t, and no one will know how well China can perform on an international test until it participates, as a nation, under the same rules as all other nations.  Third, the OECD should be far more transparent than it has been about the agreements it has with the Chinese government concerning who is tested and which scores are released.  If China is treated differently than other PISA participants, the reasons for such special treatment need to be disclosed.  And all data from the 2009 assessment of Chinese provinces should be released to the public domain so that scholars may conduct secondary analyses.

International tests are valuable for showing us how educational systems are performing all over the world.   Nations can learn important lessons from each other, but the creation of such knowledge is dependent upon having all of the facts to properly interpret each participant’s scores.

For more background on the exam, check out this FAQ from the OECD and this piece from the Education Writers Association.

Politico’s education team has already gathered some reaction — yes, before the scores have been released — here.


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