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Editorial: To support children and learning, forget obsession with PISA

December 6, 2016 Jonathan Teghtmeyer, ATA News Editor-in-Chief

The results from the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released this morning in Paris. Because of publication deadlines, I don’t know the results, but I’m pretty sure I know what the reaction will be.

I’m anticipating a further dip in Alberta’s math marks, if for no other reason than the PISA test is norm-referenced. Other countries will improve their ranking because they have engineered their systems to achieve well on PISA, particularly in math, by narrowing their curriculum or gaming the sampling process. And as a result of their rise, Alberta’s standing will likely decline just based on statistics.
The hand-wringing over math will continue. Pundits will propose causes to explain the decline and offer quick-fix solutions to the problems.

All of it should be taken with a grain of salt. The PISA test is a single, imprecise snapshot of the achievement of a relatively small sample of 15-year-olds. The 2015 test, by the way, was focused on science, with math assessment included as a much smaller subset of the test. The limitations of the test make it very difficult to use the data in a statistically meaningful way to find valuable correlations, and nearly impossible to establish causation.

We know that, with the exception of Japan, teachers in Alberta work the longest hours of any teachers in the world, based on other comparisons produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which also produces PISA. And Alberta teachers work in some of the largest and most complex classes.

While I am quite confident, based on my experience as a teacher, that these conditions of practice impact student learning, I can’t say that these factors are driving our standing in PISA with any more legitimacy than someone who says that discovery math is the cause of any decline. Nonetheless, we will likely end up with another round of public discussion over some great math crisis and the need for more direct instruction of a back-to-basics curriculum that focuses on arithmetic and computation.

Narrowing our focus on these “solutions” would be a mistake. If a government wants to improve its jurisdiction’s standing on PISA, the easiest way to do that is to align its curriculum sequencing to what PISA is testing — teach to the test. But we shouldn’t do that either.
There are always multiple inputs affecting educational achievement. As professor and researcher David Berliner points out in his work, less than 30 per cent of student academic success can be attributable to in-school factors. Out-of-school factors have at least twice the weight of influence on student achievement.

And so with all of that in mind, I would encourage Education Minister David Eggen and the government not to get too obsessed with tweaking at the edges of education with the goal of generating higher PISA results. Instead, the government should focus on the best ways to support children, teachers and learning. In actuality, with two recent announcements, the Alberta government has already started on that.

The government will be establishing 18 new early learning and child care centres that will offer child care for a maximum of $25 per day. These centres will also offer childcare that extends beyond the normal nine-to-five work day and holistic play-based early learning and development programs.

The government has also announced a school nutrition pilot program for 14 elementary schools across the province. The pilot program will inform decisions regarding provincewide school nutrition programs in 2017–18.

These are two fantastic signature programs designed to enhance student readiness to learn. They will work to reverse the effects of inquity in society and therefore help to ensure that all students have the same opportunity to learn and benefit from public education.
These programs will generate real and significant results for the kids and families that need it most. Fewer kids will be hungry at school and more will be ready to learn. That may not show up right away on PISA scores, but a real difference will be felt by those students, and their learning will certainly benefit. 

I welcome your comments—contact me at

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