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Executive Report
PISA 2015: brace for impact

November 22, 2016 Phil McRae, ATA Executive Staff Officer
Many academics are concerned that PISA further increases stress levels in schools.

What is the PISA standardized test?

PISA stands for Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and is a two-hour standardized test that attempts to assess the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science in 72 different countries. 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 2012 being the fifth international ranking.

The PISA assessment is a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions organized in groups based on a passage setting of a real-life situation. Students take various combinations of different tests and are asked (along with their school principals) to answer questionnaires on their backgrounds, schools and learning experiences and about the broader education system and learning environment.

The PISA test in the year 2015 covered the domains of science, reading and mathematics, with a focus on scientific literacy. In the year 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.

When examining the perceived winners and losers in the past PISA 2012 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 2012 was how the test correlated with the rise of a shadow education industry (private tutoring) around the world.

Why should I care?

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 for 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.

The real issues affecting society at this historical moment are the rise of societal inequalities, the need for greater social cohesion among polarized perspectives, and the collective actions necessary to combat climate change and its impact on local and global economies.

Will PISA 2015 bring a science crisis to Alberta’s school system?

PISA has historically been used as a way to declare a crisis in education systems and to justify knee-jerk reactions by education bureaucrats, which include increasing standardized (often digital) testing and the narrowing of curriculum. Of particular note is that the “math crisis” across Canada erupted soon after the 2012 PISA results became public. Will we now see a “science crisis” flare up following the release of the results of PISA 2015?

It is not hard to imagine a flurry of agitated and overreactive calls for all K–12 students to hyper-focus on Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) education. In the United States, this STEM fixation has often been at the expense of the humanities, fine arts, civics education, and even recess and free play, as school systems became fixated on more standardized assessments with the goal of bumping up the international benchmarking scores.

Those who have been calling for less high-stakes testing and standardization in order to foster greater attention on creativity in schools, the nurturing of diversity and talent, free play for young children and the development of greater social and emotional empathy within school communities may soon be contending with a Canadian public that’s concerned about changes to international ranking (significant or not) based on the PISA 2015 results. We should brace for impact as the results (good and bad) have historically sent shockwaves throughout countries and stirred national debates on how to reform education systems.

Why are academics around the world concerned about PISA testing?

In an open letter to Dr. Andreas Schleicher, head of the PISA programme at the OECD, more than 80 world-renowned academics expressed deep concerns about the impact of PISA international benchmarking, and called for a halt to the next round
of testing. Below are two of their many concerns addressed in this letter:

  1. By emphasising a narrow range of measurable aspects of education, PISA takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development, thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be about.
  2. Finally, and most important: the new PISA regime, with its continuous cycle of global testing, harms our children and impoverishes our classrooms, as it inevitably involves more and longer batteries of multiple-choice testing, more scripted “vendor”-made lessons, and less autonomy for teachers. In this way PISA has further increased the already high stress level in schools, which endangers the well-being of students and teachers.

Read the full letter of concern here:

Who builds the PISA testing frameworks?

To carry out PISA and create a market for many other follow-up services to 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 out of the PISA tests and international benchmarks.

The world’s largest for-profit education company, Pearson PLC, was selected by the OECD to develop the frameworks for the 2015 PISA assessment. The frameworks define what is measured in PISA, how it is to be reported and the approaches for the development of the tests and questionnaires.

Pearson PLC 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.

Pearson has also won the contract to develop the PISA 2018 international benchmarking test. In a Pearson press release, the head of the PISA programme at the OECD, Andreas Schleicher, states: “PISA 2018 has the potential to be the start of a new phase of our international assessments. We can now make much smarter use of technology in how we test young people, and we need global competence as governments around the world seek to equip young people with the skills they need for life and employment.”

What do I do when the PISA 2015 results are released?

PISA 2015 results will be released on Dec. 6. 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 associated with PISA and its testing regime.

Note that international benchmarking, and the PISA test, is a significant concern for Alberta’s teaching profession. At the May 2016 Annual Representative Assembly, Alberta teachers 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).

Most recently, in October 2016, Provincial Executive Council directed the Association to develop an action plan to urge its members to protest to the minister of education their forced participation in international benchmarking activities, such as the upcoming International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS) in Alberta, until such time as the ministerial review of international benchmarking tests is completed.

Most important, 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. ❚

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