Monday 30 June 2014

Leaning on the PISA tower of success

Education adviser to OECD puts up robust defence of global benchmarking tests
By Sandra Davie Senior Education Correspondent In Paris, The Sunday Times, 29 Jun 2014

Andreas Schleicher does not mince his words when asked about those who want to know why Shanghai or Singapore teenagers perform so well in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an influential global benchmarking test he oversees.

"When an American or European wins an Olympic gold medal, we cheer them. When a Chinese does, we say it must have been due to doping or the result of inhumane training," the education adviser to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) tells The Sunday Times in an interview.

"I have been asked many times about the sampling done in Asian countries, including Singapore. PISA provides all the technical data in detail. PISA results are based on robust and internationally comparable data. They have been carefully designed and validated."

Students from across the spectrum are tested, he stresses, not just those who are smarter or from better schools. So in Singapore, the teenagers tested came from all streams and more than 160 schools, including Islamic religious schools or madrasahs.

To those who suspect the PISA results, he says: "So we have to ask ourselves are these countries cheating? Or are we cheating ourselves?"

He has overseen the triennial test for 15-year-olds since it was launched in 2000. East Asian students, including those from Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong, have held pole positions and even moved up, triggering a wave of anxiety among parents, teachers and politicians in Western nations.

In the last test, held in 2012, Shanghai students were ranked first in mathematics, science and reading while their peers in Singapore came in second in mathematics and third in science and reading. In another test on problem-solving taken by students from 44 economies, Singapore came in first, followed by South Korea, Japan, Macau, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

Except for Finland, Western nations have turned in middling performances at best. In PISA 2012, American students ranked 36th, performing below the OECD average for mathematics, and average for reading and science.

Over the years, the tests, dubbed by some as "the World Cup for education", have become increasingly influential with many nations using the outcomes to drive changes in their school systems. But PISA has also come under increasing scrutiny and even attacks from academics and educators.

Besides querying the statistical validity of the tests, there have been accusations of cheating by the Chinese. The latest was an open letter to Mr Schleicher signed by 120 academics and teachers from a dozen countries. They said the tests were imperfect and narrowly focused on economic goals, and asked for PISA 2015 to be scrapped. "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," it said.

Mr Schleicher argues that on the contrary, the international comparisons have opened up a perspective to a wider range of policy options. In education, he laments, people cling to stereotypes.

"When Singapore or other Asian countries do well, they say it is due to rote learning and many hours of tuition. PISA shows no link between tuition and performance, and look at how well Singapore students did in problem-solving. Look at the sample questions we provided.

"It shows quite clearly that Singapore students are not rote learners. They are quick learners, highly inquisitive, able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts, and highly skilled in generating new insights by observing, exploring and interacting with complex situations."

People will find all kinds of excuses and explanations for not succeeding, he notes.

"When PISA results were first published in the US, people said, 'We have more immigrants than other countries'. And I told them, 'No, PISA data shows that there are many other countries with a larger immigrant population and they do better'. The idea behind PISA is to take away all the excuses."

Holding the test every three years allows countries to learn from on another - not necessarily from the top performers, but those which have improved.

"People say you can only improve an education system over 25 years - but look at Poland, look at Germany, which have improved in a very short time," Mr Schleicher says. "These countries didn't change their culture or the make-up of their population. They changed their education policies and strategies."

He relates how people in Germany, his home country, believed they had a high-performing education system until they were stunned by their mediocre performance in PISA 2000.

"They called it 'PISA Shock' and, for the very first time, the public debate in Germany was dominated for months by education. Not tax, not other kinds of issues, but education."

Then policymakers made changes. The government raised its investment in education. Much was done to increase the life chances of students with an immigrant background and those suffering social disadvantage. New legislation was introduced to expand access to pre-school education for children under three and give all children the right to a place in kindergarten.

The changes produced results. By PISA 2009, Germany had gone from below average to above average in the rankings.

"PISA shows what is possible in education," Mr Schleicher says.

Highlighting what five cycles of PISA have shown, he says: "It's not about money. Spending per student only explains about less than 20 per cent of the performance variation among countries, and two countries with similar spending achieve very different results."

Neither is it about reducing class size. "The top-performing East Asian nations have larger classes."

What the data does show is that the quality of teachers and the learning environment matter. Also, in top-performing countries, there is importance placed on education.

"You hear of Asian parents mortgaging their homes and using their retirement savings to send their children to university. There's a strong belief that education will secure you a good future," he says.

There is also a strong belief that all children are capable of success.

"Parents and teachers in countries expect every student to succeed and you can see that actually mirrored in student behaviour," he says, noting the difference in student responses to a PISA survey probing them on what counts for success in mathematics,

"Students in North America would tell us that talent counts. If I'm not born a genius in maths, I'd better study something else. But the majority of students in Asian countries such as Singapore would say that it depends on how much time they spend, and how much effort they put in.

"So for them their achievement depends on how much time and effort they put in, rather than inherited intelligence, which suggests that education and its social context can make a difference in instilling values that foster success in education."

Top-performing countries also embrace diversity among students with differentiated instructional practices, and their teachers have high expectations for every student. Anyone can create an education system where a few at the top succeed but, he adds: "The real challenge is to push through the entire cohort, which Singapore does very well."

High-performing countries also pay great attention to how they select and train their teachers. And when deciding where to invest, they prioritise quality of teachers over the size of classes.

"They also provide multiple pathways for teachers to grow in their careers and have moved on from bureaucratic control to treating their teachers as professionals. They encourage and support their teachers to develop themselves further and to make innovations in teaching," Mr Schleicher adds.

He is well aware of the many complaints in Singapore over schools' reliance on tests and the heated debate over the Primary School Leaving Examination.

But he points out that PISA has shown that most systems which do well have an exam culture, and says this is why tests and exams work: "It signals to parents and students that doing well in their academic studies is important."

But there is a downside to over- reliance on examinations: "Exams make students focus on things that can be easily measured and it encourages standardisation versus ingenuity, compliance verses thinking out of the box."

Summing up the good that PISA can do, he says: "The findings allow policymakers around the world to gauge the knowledge and skills of students in their own countries in comparison with those in other countries, set policy targets against measurable goals achieved by other education systems, and learn from policies and practices applied elsewhere."

But what about the charge that such international comparisons in education standards are unfair? Is it meaningful to compare countries as different as Finland, China and Vietnam?

Mr Schleicher replies by pointing out that young people from all those countries are competing with one another in a globalised economy and the skills they learn are going to be hugely important to their life chances.

He adds that there is no running away from competition and comparisons. "This is true for education as much as economics. Your country's competitiveness and your individual job prospects are heavily influenced by what happens in other countries, how skilled, how talented their workers are.

"In a global economy, improvement by national standards is not a measure of success. You compete globally."

The 'World's Schoolmaster'

Mr Andreas Schleicher, 50, dubbed the "World's Schoolmaster" by The Atlantic magazine, is a special adviser on education policy to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and oversees the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

He was previously the director for analysis at the International Association for Educational Achievement. A German citizen, he studied physics in Germany and received a degree in mathematics and statistics in Australia.

He has received numerous honours and awards, including the Theodor Heuss prize, named after the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany, for "exemplary democratic engagement".

He designed the PISA test, taken by half a million 15-year-olds around the world (the most recent test covered 65 nations and territories) every three years, which offers insights into how well national education systems are preparing students for adult life.

The results are given to governments so they can work on improving their systems.

Over the years, Mr Schleicher has become an advocate for the policy changes that, PISA research suggests, make for great schools.

He is married with three children and speaks German, English, Italian, French and Spanish.

The Test

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international survey done by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), aims to evaluate education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students.

It is done once every three years.

The latest results, from PISA 2012, were released in December last year and April this year.

Around 510,000 students in 65 economies took part in PISA 2012, representing about 28 million 15-year-olds globally.

Students are randomly selected for the tests and each assessment year focuses on one of three key subjects: reading, mathematics or science.

In PISA 2012, the focus was on mathematics.

The test, conducted in the native language of the students, lasts two hours. They tackle a mix of open-ended and multiple-choice questions organised in groups, based on a passage setting out a real-life situation.

The students and their school principals also answer questionnaires to provide information on the students' backgrounds, schools attended and learning experiences as well as the broader school system and learning environment.

The PISA test is seen to be of value because the tests are not directly linked to the school curriculum. They are designed to assess the extent to which students at the end of compulsory education can apply their knowledge to real-life situations.

The information collected through background questionnaires also provides a context, which can help analysts interpret the results.

As PISA is done every three years, countries can compare their students' performance over time and assess the impact of education policy decisions.

The OECD is also looking at broadening the tests to measure other skills that are becoming increasingly crucial to thrive in the workplace.

Hence, those sitting for PISA 2015 will be tested not only on their problem-solving skills in mathematics, science and reading, but also on collaborative problem-solving.

They will be asked to solve a problem by collaborating with a partner, in this case, a software program.

Students will have to use their interpersonal and communication skills to engage the program and pool knowledge and skills to complete a task.

In explaining the move, the OECD said that much of the problem-solving work done in the world today is performed by teams in an increasingly global and computerised economy. It also quoted a University of Phoenix Research Institute study which identified virtual collaboration as one of 10 key skills for the future workforce.


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