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Q & A: The time has come to topple PISA

June 14, 2016 Gordon Thomas, Executive Secretary

Question: Why does the Association oppose participation in PISA and other international benchmarking?

Answer: At the recent Annual Representative Assembly (ARA), delegates overwhelmingly endorsed Provincial Executive Council’s call upon the minister of education to withdraw from participation in future iterations of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

While international benchmarking such as PISA does provide some useful information about the performance of education systems, it is increasingly apparent that these assessments are being used for purposes that were never intended and, far worse, that they are distorting the education reform agenda to the point that many education ministers are engaging in policy gamesmanship focused on competing for position on simplistic rankings.

The Association’s position is also shared by a group of 60 leading academics who called on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and ­Development (OECD) to “slow down the testing juggernaut” in an open letter to Andreas Schleicher, the main architect of the PISA ranking regime.

Passage of this resolution signals the frustration of teachers across the province regarding the focus of many governments around the world on narrow measures. Furthermore, teachers are frustrated by the ongoing cherry-picking of the data generated by these assessments to advance predetermined policy decisions or to drive particular agendas.

As suggested by Sam Sellar, a researcher from the University of Queensland who advises the Association, the public policy questions surrounding the production of international rankings such as PISA and other large data infrastructures are increasingly being controlled by government officials who decide which data is worth collecting, the values that determine what is worth measuring (consider the almost universal focus on mathematics and science), and who owns the data and what is done with it. In his view, “Accountability has become the system, and we need more intelligent approaches that enable students, families and communities to participate in conversations about what gets measured and the values that are reflected in these measures.” 

We really need to have conversations about student assessment and public assurance models into the future.

Since passage of the ARA resolution, there has been considerable attention paid to the Association’s position. International experts noted the decision and shared it on social media, and the Association was contacted by the Guardian newspaper in Australia for more information about it. Meanwhile, the Association will continue to explore ways to address the profession’s concerns related to the misuse of international assessments and to find ways to enrich the accountability processes in the province based on sound research and proven successes in other jurisdictions. We do not oppose testing, but the problems with these tests now outweigh any previous advantages. ❚

Questions for consideration in this ­column are welcome. Please address them to Gordon Thomas at Barnett House (

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