The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Academics call for pause in PISA tests

Here’s an open letter written by academics and school activists from around the world to Andreas Schleicher, director of the Program of International Student Assessment, known as PISA, which tests 15-year-olds in dozens of countries and individual education systems in math, reading and science every three years.  The letter expresses concerns about the impact PISA is having on education systems around the world and asks him “to consider skipping” the next exams and come up with an improved assessment.

U.S. students historically score at best average on international exams, including PISA. Every time new results are released, we hear cries that this is proof of the decline of American public education — even though, as already noted but is worth repeating — Americans have never been at the top of international exams, even when public education wasn’t being questioned.  Shanghai came out with the No. 1 international ranking in the 2012 PISA administration, though questions emerged about whether Shanghai deserved that ranking.

Here’s the letter, which was first published by The Guardian:

Dear Dr. Schleicher,
We write to you in your capacity as OECD’s (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) director of the Programme of International Student Assessment (Pisa). Now in its 13th year, Pisa is known around the world as an instrument to rank OECD and non-OECD countries (60-plus at last count) according to a measure of academic achievement of 15-year-old students in mathematics, science, and reading. Administered every three years, Pisa results are anxiously awaited by governments, education ministers, and the editorial boards of newspapers, and are cited authoritatively in countless policy reports. They have begun to deeply influence educational practices in many countries. As a result of Pisa, countries are overhauling their education systems in the hopes of improving their rankings. Lack of progress on Pisa has led to declarations of crisis and “Pisa shock” in many countries, followed by calls for resignations, and far-reaching reforms according to Pisa precepts.
We are frankly concerned about the negative consequences of the Pisa rankings. These are some of our concerns:
• While standardised testing has been used in many nations for decades (despite serious reservations about its validity and reliability), Pisa has contributed to an escalation in such testing and a dramatically increased reliance on quantitative measures. For example, in the US, Pisa has been invoked as a major justification for the recent “Race to the Top” programme, which has increased the use of standardised testing for student-, teacher-, and administrator evaluations, which rank and label students, as well as teachers and administrators according to the results of tests widely known to be imperfect (see, for example, Finland’s unexplained decline from the top of the Pisa table).
• In education policy, Pisa, with its three-year assessment cycle, has caused a shift of attention to short-term fixes designed to help a country quickly climb the rankings, despite research showing that enduring changes in education practice take decades, not a few years, to come to fruition. For example, we know that the status of teachers and the prestige of teaching as a profession have a strong influence on the quality of instruction, but that status varies strongly across cultures and is not easily influenced by short-term policy.
• 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.
• As an organisation of economic development, OECD is naturally biased in favour of the economic role of public [state] schools. But preparing young men and women for gainful employment is not the only, and not even the main goal of public education, which has to prepare students for participation in democratic self-government, moral action and a life of personal development, growth and wellbeing.
• Unlike United Nations (UN) organisations such as UNESCO or UNICEF that have clear and legitimate mandates to improve education and the lives of children around the world, OECD has no such mandate. Nor are there, at present, mechanisms of effective democratic participation in its education decision-making process.
• To carry out Pisa and a host of follow-up services, OECD has embraced “public-private partnerships” and entered into alliances with multi-national for-profit companies, which stand to gain financially from any deficits—real or perceived—unearthed by Pisa. Some of these companies provide educational services to American schools and school districts on a massive, for-profit basis, while also pursuing plans to develop for-profit elementary education in Africa, where OECD is now planning to introduce the Pisa programme.
• Finally, and most importantly: 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 wellbeing of students and teachers.
These developments are in overt conflict with widely accepted principles of good educational and democratic practice:
• No reform of any consequence should be based on a single narrow measure of quality.
• No reform of any consequence should ignore the important role of non-educational factors, among which a nation’s socio-economic inequality is paramount. In many countries, including the US, inequality has dramatically increased over the past 15 years, explaining the widening educational gap between rich and poor which education reforms, no matter how sophisticated, are unlikely to redress.
• An organisation like OECD, as any organisation that deeply affects the life of our communities, should be open to democratic accountability by members of those communities.
We are writing not only to point out deficits and problems. We would also like to offer constructive ideas and suggestions that may help to alleviate the above mentioned concerns. While in no way complete, they illustrate how learning could be improved without the above mentioned negative effects:
1 Develop alternatives to league tables: explore more meaningful and less easily sensationalised ways of reporting assessment outcomes. For example, comparing developing countries, where 15-year-olds are regularly drafted into child labour, with first-world countries makes neither educational nor political sense and opens OECD up for charges of educational colonialism.
2 Make room for participation by the full range of relevant constituents and scholarship: to date, the groups with greatest influence on what and how international learning is assessed are psychometricians, statisticians, and economists. They certainly deserve a seat at the table, but so do many other groups: parents, educators, administrators, community leaders, students, as well as scholars from disciplines like anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, linguistics, as well as the arts and humanities. What and how we assess the education of 15-year-old students should be subject to discussions involving all these groups at local, national, and international levels.
3 Include national and international organisations in the formulation of assessment methods and standards whose mission goes beyond the economic aspect of public education and which are concerned with the health, human development, well-being and happiness of students and teachers. This would include the above mentioned United Nations organisations, as well as teacher, parent, and administrator associations, to name a few.
4 Publish the direct and indirect costs of administering Pisa so that taxpayers in member countries can gauge alternative uses of the millions of dollars spent on these tests and determine if they want to continue their participation in it.
5 Welcome oversight by independent international monitoring teams which can observe the administration of Pisa from the conception to the execution, so that questions about test format and statistical and scoring procedures can be weighed fairly against charges of bias or unfair comparisons.
6 Provide detailed accounts regarding the role of private, for-profit companies in the preparation, execution, and follow-up to the tri-annual Pisa assessments to avoid the appearance or reality of conflicts of interest.
7 Slow down the testing juggernaut. To gain time to discuss the issues mentioned here at local, national, and international levels, consider skipping the next Pisa cycle. This would give time to incorporate the collective learning that will result from the suggested deliberations in a new and improved assessment model.
We assume that OECD’s Pisa experts are motivated by a sincere desire to improve education. But we fail to understand how your organisation has become the global arbiter of the means and ends of education around the world. OECD’s narrow focus on standardised testing risks turning learning into drudgery and killing the joy of learning. As Pisa has led many governments into an international competition for higher test scores, OECD has assumed the power to shape education policy around the world, with no debate about the necessity or limitations of OECD’s goals. We are deeply concerned that measuring a great diversity of educational traditions and cultures using a single, narrow, biased yardstick could, in the end, do irreparable harm to our schools and our students.
Andrews, Paul Professor of Mathematics Education, Stockholm University
Atkinson, Lori New York State Allies for Public Education
Ball, Stephen J Karl Mannheim Professor of Sociology of Education, Institute of Education, University of London
Barber, Melissa Parents Against High Stakes Testing
Beckett, Lori Winifred Mercier Professor of Teacher Education, Leeds Metropolitan University
Berardi, Jillaine Linden Avenue Middle School, Assistant Principal
Berliner, David Regents Professor of Education at Arizona State University
Bloom, Elizabeth EdD Associate Professor of Education, Hartwick College
Boudet, Danielle Oneonta Area for Public Education
Boland, Neil Senior lecturer, AUT University, Auckland, New Zealand
Burris, Carol Principal and former Teacher of the Year
Cauthen, Nancy PhD Change the Stakes, NYS Allies for Public Education
Cerrone, Chris Testing Hurts Kids; NYS Allies for Public Education
Ciaran, Sugrue Professor, Head of School, School of Education, University College Dublin
Deutermann, Jeanette Founder Long Island Opt Out, Co-founder NYS Allies for Public Education
Devine, Nesta Associate Professor, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand
Dodge, Arnie Chair, Department of Educational Leadership, Long Island University
Dodge, Judith Author, Educational Consultant
Farley, Tim Principal, Ichabod Crane School; New York State Allies for Public Education
Fellicello, Stacia Principal, Chambers Elementary School
Fleming, Mary Lecturer, School of Education, National University of Ireland, Galway
Fransson, Göran Associate Professor of Education, University of Gävle, Sweden
Giroux, Henry Professor of English and Cultural Studies, McMaster University
Glass, Gene Senior Researcher, National Education Policy Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico
Glynn, Kevin Educator, co-founder of Lace to the Top
Goldstein, Harvey Professor of Social Statistics, University of Bristol
Gorlewski, David Director, Educational Leadership Doctoral Program, D’Youville College
Gorlewski, Julie PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at New Paltz
Gowie, Cheryl Professor of Education, Siena College
Greene, Kiersten Assistant Professor of Literacy, State University of New York at New Paltz
Haimson, Leonie Parent Advocate and Director of “Class Size Matters”
Heinz, Manuela Director of Teaching Practice, School of Education, National University of Ireland Galway
Hughes, Michelle Principal, High Meadows Independent School
Jury, Mark Chair, Education Department, Siena College
Kahn, Hudson Valley Against Common Core
Kayden, Michelle Linden Avenue Middle School Red Hook, New York
Kempf, Arlo Program Coordinator of School and Society, OISE, University of Toronto
Kilfoyle, Marla NBCT, General Manager of BATs
Labaree, David Professor of Education, Stanford University
Leonardatos, Harry Principal, high school, Clarkstown, New York
MacBeath, John Professor Emeritus, Director of Leadership for Learning, University of Cambridge
McLaren, Peter Distinguished Professor, Chapman University
McNair, Jessica Co-founder Opt-Out CNY, parent member NYS Allies for Public Education
Meyer, Heinz-Dieter Associate Professor, Education Governance & Policy, State University of New York (Albany)
Meyer, Tom Associate Professor of Secondary Education, State University of New York at New Paltz
Millham, Rosemary PhD Science Coordinator, Master Teacher Campus Director, SUNY New Paltz
Millham, Rosemary Science Coordinator/Assistant Professor, Master Teacher Campus Director, State University of New York, New Paltz
Oliveira Andreotti Vanessa Canada Research Chair in Race, Inequality, and Global Change, University of British Columbia
Sperry, Carol Emerita, Millersville University, Pennsylvania
Mitchell, Ken Lower Hudson Valley Superintendents Council
Mucher, Stephen Director, Bard Master of Arts in Teaching Program, Los Angeles
Tuck, Eve Assistant Professor, Coordinator of Native American Studies, State University of New York at New Paltz
Naison, Mark Professor of African American Studies and History, Fordham University; Co-Founder, Badass Teachers Association
Nielsen, Kris Author, Children of the Core
Noddings, Nel Professor (emerita) Philosophy of Education, Stanford University
Noguera, Pedro Peter L. Agnew Professor of Education, New York University
Nunez, Isabel Associate Professor, Concordia University, Chicago
Pallas, Aaron Arthur I Gates Professor of Sociology and Education, Columbia University
Peters, Michael Professor, University of Waikato, Honorary Fellow, Royal Society New Zealand
Pugh, Nigel Principal, Richard R Green High School of Teaching, New York City
Ravitch, Diane Research Professor, New York University
Rivera-Wilson Jerusalem Senior Faculty Associate and Director of Clinical Training and Field Experiences, University at Albany
Roberts, Peter Professor, School of Educational Studies and Leadership, University of Canterbury, New Zealand
Rougle, Eija Instructor, State University of New York, Albany
Rudley, Lisa Director: Education Policy-Autism Action Network
Saltzman, Janet Science Chair, Physics Teacher, Red Hook High School
Schniedewind, Nancy Professor of Education, State University of New York, New Paltz
Silverberg, Ruth Associate Professor, College of Staten Island, City University of New York
Sperry, Carol Professor of Education, Emerita, Millersville University
St. John, Edward Algo D. Henderson Collegiate Professor, University of Michigan
Suzuki, Daiyu Teachers College at Columbia University
Swaffield, Sue Senior Lecturer, Educational Leadership and School Improvement, University of Cambridge
Tanis, Bianca Parent Member: ReThinking Testing
Thomas, Paul Associate Professor of Education, Furman University
Thrupp, Martin Professor of Education, University of Waikato, New Zealand
Tobin, KT Founding member, ReThinking Testing
Tomlinson, Sally Emeritus Professor, Goldsmiths College, University of London; Senior Research Fellow, Department of Education, Oxford University
Tuck, Eve Coordinator of Native American Studies, State University of New York at New Paltz
VanSlyke-Briggs Kjersti Associate Professor, State University of New York, Oneonta
Wilson, Elaine Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
Wrigley, Terry Honorary senior research fellow, University of Ballarat, Australia
Zahedi, Katie Principal, Linden Ave Middle School, Red Hook, New York
Zhao, Yong Professor of Education, Presidential Chair, University of Oregon