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Apples to Oranges: Are PISA Tests Fair?

Feb 09, 2011

The Program for International Assessment (PISA), administered every three years, is an evaluation of student learning in dozens of countries across the globe. While many view the assessment as the best means by which to compare countries' educational systems, some see flaws in the exam and how it is administered.

By Douglas J. Fehlen

PISA test evaluation testing U.S. Shanghai United States assessment global unfairness countries

'A Wake-Up Call'

When students from Shanghai, China, emerged as the top performers in math, reading and science on the latest PISA, education analysts in many Western countries voiced alarm. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, referencing the poor performance of American students, suggested that the assessment results should be 'a wake-up call' for the need to improve schools.

It has become something of a tradition that with the release of PISA results, so too comes public hand wringing - often justified - on the part of education advocates in poor-performing countries. Also accompanying announcement of the assessment's findings are questions about the validity of the PISA's methodology.

Inevitable Bias?

Administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris, the PISA was first conducted in 2000. Since it's inception, the assessment has drawn response from critics. Some observers have suggested that the PISA, in its very composition, is culturally biased. Many of these people are unconvinced it is possible to create a single assessment that is appropriate for gauging student learning across countries.

Some of the most recent criticism of this kind made has come from Argentine education minister, Alberto Sileoni. Responding to questions about the poor performance of students from his country in the latest evaluation, Sileoni suggested that the PISA has been developed by wealthy nations 'for a reality that is not ours.' The minister also stated that Argentina was considering opting out of the PISA to establish a regional test in conjunction with other Latin American countries.

PISA test evaluation testing U.S. Shanghai United States assessment global unfairness countries

No More Than Test Scores

Another oft-heard criticism of the PISA is that it doesn't evaluate the quality of a country's education system beyond gauging student performance in reading, science and math. Many advocates cite the need for a much wider set of criteria in judging schools, including how well they prepare students in aspects of life beyond academics. Basing rankings strictly on test scores, these analysts argue, promotes an idea that the goal of schools should be nothing more to create test-taking machines.

This notion is in direct conflict with the educational philosophies found in many countries. In places like Finland, for example, fostering students' healthy social and emotional development are important aspects of the school system. Some argue that the PISA rankings, with a limited conceptualization of what's important in education (only test scores), fail to account for factors these countries deem significant.

An Imprecise Instrument

Beyond questions of its true ability to capture a snapshot of educational success between countries, the PISA has also been the subject of criticism for how it is administered. For example, Shanghai is a center of migration within China where many children are sent by their families to study. Typically students return to their home provinces for high school. Some analysts have suggested that school officials in Shanghai may have allowed the best students to stay in the city in a ploy to raise scores. That is not to mention the fact that China didn't participate in the study as a country - only select cities were evaluated.

Despite these and other flaws, many view the PISA as the best means we have for evaluating student performance between countries. The reactionary critiques that often surface in media reporting and op-ed pages, however, suggest that results from the evaluation may often result in unfair simplifications of how well countries are educating their youth.

Learn more about the latest PISA results.


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