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Inoculate yourself against the GERM


November 26, 2019 Phil McRae, ATA Associate Co-ordinator of Research


Beware of manufactured education crises in the wake of upcoming PISA test results

For many years the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM, as coined by Pasi Sahlberg) has destructively spread like an epidemic across and throughout education systems. The GERM promotes more frequent testing of students at all grade levels, increased standardization and a narrowing of curriculum to obsessively focus on science, technology and math. Over time, the GERM infects and diminishes the promotion of creativity, the arts, talent diversity, interpersonal communication and even the notion of play in K–12 learning environments.

The GERM has far too often been smuggled into schools by the PISA test, promoted by the Programme for International Student Assessment. In Alberta we don’t want to catch the GERM like so many others have, especially when we are asked to embrace the results of the 2018 PISA test.

What is the PISA test?

The PISA test is a two-hour standardized test that attempts to assess the competencies of 15 year olds in reading, mathematics and science in 80 different countries. The PISA assessment is a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions organized in groups based on a passage about a real-life situation. Students take various combinations of different tests and are asked (along with their school’s principal) to answer questionnaires on their background, school and learning experiences and their broader education system and learning environment.

The PISA test was first administered in the year 2000 by the Organisation for Economic Co operation and Development (OECD) and is conducted every three years in Alberta, with PISA 2018 being the seventh international ranking. In 2015, PISA covered the domains of science, reading and mathematics, with a focus on scientific literacy. In 2012 the spotlight was on mathematics, with reading and science assessed as minor domains, and in 2009 the PISA test focused primarily on 15-year-olds’ reading abilities. The next iteration of PISA — PISA 2021 — will return to a focus on mathematics, and 15 year olds will be assessed on their creative thinking abilities.

The PISA 2018 results — including Alberta’s performance — will be publicly released on Dec. 3. The PISA testing in 2018 has continued to test students on mathematics and science but focused heavily on reading. The last time PISA focused on reading was in 2009. Further, in PISA 2018, students in some countries were also tested on financial literacy and global competencies.

Who profits from PISA testing?

To carry out PISA and create a market for many other follow-up services for governments, the OECD has created alliances with global for-profit companies. These corporations have been shown to have gained financially from the perceived deficits that come from the PISA tests and international benchmarks.

Pearson Education, the world’s largest for-profit education company, developed the frameworks for the PISA 2018 international benchmarking test. The frameworks defined the overall approach used to develop the tests and questionnaires in PISA 2018, what was being measured, and how it will be reported. As noted in a recent research report entitled Pearson 2025 — Transforming Teaching and Privatising Education Data, scholars Sam Sellar and Anna Hogan state: “Pearson is a new type of edu-business that operates across multiple education sectors and industries with a more ambitious global corporate vision than many of its competitors.”

When examining the perceived winners and losers in the past PISA global rankings, it is important to note that the top five education systems have always done extremely well in international standardized tests, especially in math, primarily because they are so test-centric and hyper-focused on mathematics. One of the lesser examined aspects of PISA is how the testing has correlated with the rise of private tutoring (a shadow education industry) around the world.

Of note is that Pearson earns the majority of its global profits from online learning tools, virtual schools, digital texts, digital testing, student and teacher testing programs and services, student information systems and instructional management systems.

Why should I care?

The PISA test results have historically sent shockwaves throughout countries and stirred national debates across Canada on how best to reform entire K–12 education systems, even though it is only a two-hour test of a selection of 15 year olds. In the recent past, PISA has been used as a way to declare a crisis in education systems and to justify knee-jerk reactions, which include increasing standardized testing and narrowing curriculum. Of particular note is that the “math crisis” across Canada erupted soon after the 2012 PISA results became public.

If history is to repeat itself, then there is potential for a math and/or reading “crisis” to be generated by the results of the PISA 2018 assessment. Even if Alberta remains at the top of the PISA league tables and is stable with past performance, there is a risk that it will still be made into a crisis to narrow our Alberta curriculum back to the basics, and further focus student learning on financial literacy and/or ambiguous global student competencies.

The PISA ideology accepts that economic imperatives — growth and competitiveness — are the primary aims of schooling, and assures that student achievement in math and science are used as the key indicators of the future economic health of a region or society. It fails to recognize that the role of education is much broader and includes (among a host of other responsibilities) the nurturing of social cohesion in rapidly changing complex societies, passing on our diverse cultural heritage, and the promotion of civic engagement and citizenship.

What should I do?

After the PISA 2018 results are released, as a professional, pay special attention to how the conversation about PISA develops in the popular press and within your local school communities. Be informed of the purpose of this test, the increase in international benchmarking in Alberta, and the deep concerns noted above that are associated with PISA and its global testing regime.

Of note is that paying for, supporting and administering international benchmarking tests in general, and the PISA test in particular, is of significant concern for Alberta’s teaching profession. In fact, in 2016 the Association established policy opposing PISA that explicitly states The Government of Alberta should give notice that Alberta will not participate in future iterations of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS). [2016]

Most importantly, take part in a conversation around what you believe is the purpose of K–12 schooling and how the PISA test will undoubtedly shape that discourse for the parents of your students, and the conversations around education reforms in Alberta.

OPEN Letter

In an open letter to the head of the PISA programme, more than 80 world-renowned academics expressed deep concerns about the impact of PISA international benchmarking, and called for a halt to this standardized testing.

To read the letter, visit

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