What is so Important about the PISA Results?

This past December, the results of the 2012 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) were announced and I listened to or read several news stories lamenting the performance of the US schools and the acknowledging the excellent results of Asian countries, especially China. I decided to look more into the test and what it means. I will be doing a series of blog posts on my thoughts on what I find out.

The PISA test is developed by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) which is non-profit organization that “promotes policies that will improve the economic and social well-being of people around the world. It serves as a forum and support network for nations to benchmark and seek feedback in solving common problems. One of the many areas the OECD works on is education, “We compare how different countries’ school systems are readying their young people for modern life…”. They do this through the PISA test. The test is the brainchild of Andreas Schleicher a physicist and employee of OECD since 1996. Working with professors at the University of Hamburg, he made a test that fairly, across cultures, school systems, languages, etc. that “assesses to what extent 15-year students have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies.” This basically was looking at the output of national school systems, rather than input, like amount of spending in school, teacher preparation, etc, that the OECD measured before. The first test was given in 2000, and every three years, millions of 15-year olds around the world take the test.

In this latest PISA test of 2012, 510,000 15-year olds, representing 28 million 15-year old students from 65 countries, took tests in mathematics, science, reading, and problem-solving. The test focuses on not what they know, but what they can do with what they know. This year’s test featured a new section on financial literacy which I am really interested in learning more about.  The test lasts about 2 hours and it is both paper-based and computer-based, with a mix of questions requiring students to construct their own responses and multiple-choice items. The questions are based on passages that set out a real life situation. In addition to the test, the PISA also does a survey of students and school principals that covers background information.

I read the PISA 2012 Results In Focus: What 15-year-olds know and what they can do with what they know and came away with the importance of mathematic proficiency for all of our students. Inequality in the distribution of math skills across populations is closely related to how wealth is shared within nations. That means proficiency in mathematics is a strong predictor of positive outcomes for young adults, and greatly influences their ability to participate in post-secondary education and their expected future earnings. China and Asia dominated the math assessment, with the top 7 nations being all Asian, with China having four of those spots (Shanghai, Hong Kong, Macao, and Chinese Tapei). Shanghai was in particularly impressive, with overall 13% of students reaching the highest levels (levels 5-6) on the math test, in Shanghai, 55% of students reached those levels. In fact, Shanghai’s score of 613 is the equivalent of three years of schooling above the OECD average score. That means Shanghai’s ninth graders are mastering grade 11 and 12 level work. They also scored tops in Reading and Science.

In looking at the results of the countries I am affiliated with, the USA scored around the OECD average on all three tests, which it usually does. The highest US state, Massachusetts, finished equal with Germany , in 16th place. Serbia, the country I currently live in, scored significantly below OECD average, and Japan, the country I am moving to this summer, scored in 7th place, just behind Korea. Some of my other thoughts on the test are as follows:

  • I guess the OECD chooses 15-year-olds because it is too late by the time a student reaches that point to “catch up” to where they are supposed to be. All the data indicates early intervention, like the school systems in Finland, and pre-primary education, help students from fall below the standards of world excellence.
  • Boys show better math skills at the highest levels than girls, but more boys than girls are in the lowest-performing students category. Education around the world needs to do a better job in engaging more boys in education and school.
  • A problem in Serbian schools are a lack of punctuality and truancy and these are negatively associated with student performance on the PISA, up to one full year of formal school difference. Over 33% of students in OCED countries reported arriving late for school during the two weeks prior to the PISA assessment and more than 25% reported that they skipped classes or days of school during that same period. School stakeholders need to try to prevent this from happening.
  • High expectations from parents for their children result in more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn math, and more confidence in their own ability to solve math problems than students of similar socio-economic status and academic performance, but whose parents hold less ambitious expectations for them.
  • Better teacher-student relations are strongly associated with greater student engagement with and at school.
  • Political, Social, and Religious leaders need to promote parents in valuing education more than other areas of national interest.
  • Teachers and School Principals need to be able to identify students who show signs of lack of engagement with school and work with them individually before disengagement takes firm root.
  • Recommendations for math teachers are to assign projects that require at least a week to complete; ask students to present their thinking or reasoning at some length, give frequent feedback on their strengths and weaknesses, and give problems that require students to extend their thinking.

Why to some countries do better on the test than others? I’ll be blogging more about this.


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