As ever the latest PISA results have prompted a media frenzy across the globe, with the world’s media eager to put the boot into governments where results have not been as good as expected, while in countries where there has been improvement, academics have come out in force to undermine the progress by challenging the validity of the tests (these questions should not be ignored) and accusing PISA of encouraging knee-jerk political reactions which inevitably destabilise strong education systems.
The results for the UK have been particularly eye-catching, with good progress made in Reading and Maths (although the countries across the UK had mixed fortunes). So what exactly are we to make of the latest PISA results?
To put aside the questions around validity for a moment, and viewing the results from a UK perspective, there are two ways you can look at this. Either the results can be seen as well-earned reward for the hard work that teachers and students have put in over the past 5 to 10 years, and provide evidence to suggest that government educational policy has had the desired effect. The UK results especially provide ammunition for the argument that the systematic phonics approach that was forcefully brought in 2010 has had the desired impact, and indeed teachers themselves are very positive when it comes to the phonics approach to teaching reading.
On the other hand you could point to low and declining levels of life satisfaction experienced by the UK’s children, and argue that heavy handed government policies are sapping the life out of teaching and learning. The OECD, who are behind the PISA tests, suggest that there is a culture of individual competition rather than co-operation in UK schools which is creating an environment that leads to anxiety. Anyone who is close to the UK schools sector would recognise this, and it would be tempting to use the findings from this study as a compelling argument to reduce testing of the UK’s children.
So what do we make of these results? It is surely wrong to view these findings as either entirely positive or entirely negative. In the UK we should use these findings to praise all those involved in the education sector who have worked so hard to achieve these results, while acknowledging that more needs to be done to create a supporting, nurturing environment that works for teachers and pupils.
The OECD are keen to improve the validity of the PISA tests, and there is undoubtedly some work to be done to make sure that they achieve their mission, which is ultimately to lead to improved education systems around the world, and not to provide material to be used as the proverbial political football.
Ultimately what this really means is that there is still work to be done. As is the case when carrying out assessment for learning in the classroom, the objective of the PISA assessment is to identify opportunities to close gaps, identify trends that correlate with improved educational performance, and not to use the results as a rod with which to beat teachers and pupils. We should use the results from this study to objectively question what has gone on, and use these results to inform where we go next. If the results are used in this way, then PISA has a valuable role to play in helping to improve education across the world.