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Durham University

Research & business

Thought leadership

Whose fault is PISA?

(16 December 2016)

Professor Peter Tymms from the School of Education and Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring questions how much we can take from the recent international education rankings results.

The recent PISA results show that England’s performance has hardly changed since the last round of assessments in 2012. Indeed, England’s results and the results of most other countries have remained pretty stable since PISA was introduced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2000.

Re-examining education systems

Changing a country’s PISA results is a bit like trying to turn around an oil tanker: the tanker needs a planned approach over miles coordinated by a knowledgeable team.

In education it takes decades of work and a consistent evidence-based approach to education policy. An approach that is at odds with the way that policy is handled in England with a new secretary of state for education bringing in new, often ideological based ways of working, regularly.

There is a lot of interest across the world in the latest results; many countries experienced a ‘PISA shock’ following the release of the first results prompting a re-examination of their education systems and attempts to address their position in the rankings.

Baseline needed

But there is a fundamental problem.

PISA results are not directly related to what is taught in schools but are designed to measure how students use their educational skills in various situations.

These ability-based skills are a product of the individuals themselves, their families, schools and society as a whole, not just the education system. And yet the results are often interpreted as indicators of the quality of schooling.

To know how effective an education system really is, we need to know where children are when they enter school and what progress the schools are responsible for. To start with we need a baseline.

International comparative study

With our iPIPS research project we have started to provide such a baseline and to create a fuller picture.

So far we have assessed pupils at the start of school in Russia, China, South Africa and Brazil using the international iPIPS assessment. Developed from our previous work it is now available in a dozen languages and the iPIPS international comparative study is steadily expanding.

Best predictor of later success

The developmental work was able to draw on around three million assessments of children at the start of their school life and one year later in England, Scotland, New Zealand and Australia.

PISA results are very hard to make sense of without a robust and accurate baseline to start from which can predict later success as well as difficulties. This is one of the things that we hope to achieve with iPIPS.