The leaning tower of PISA

– What do standardized tests really stand for? –

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, designed and carried out by the OECD, aims at evaluating “the extent to which 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies”. It tests knowledge on science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy – the first three having been consistently assessed, the last two having been introduced as minor thematic areas in 2012.

The two-hour test is carried out every three years to 15-year-old students since 2000 and has increasingly attracted the attention of researchers, policy makers, and the media; the 2015 test featured 72 economies, including both OECD members and partner countries – its latest results are available since December.

Just give me a reason

The original goal behind the creation of PISA was to measure the efficiency of school systems and their ability to provide valuable education, testing the pupils’ capacity to solve problems portrayed in realistic frameworks. It aims at giving an instrument to compare schooling systems around the world and to promote education reforms.

Since its introduction, Pisa has brought attention to the role of teachers in society and the relevance of their preparation and engagement in the classroom for the students’ achievements. It has also shed light on the importance of equality in education: the Pisa scores include data on the distribution of results among students according to their background, and this has urged fruitful reflections, and opportune action-taking, in this direction.

Germany is a prime example of well-spent efforts. In 2000, Germany distinguished itself for being the country with the highest inequality in performance: the top and the bottom quartile in terms of socioeconomic status differed by more than 100 points in reading; the disparity increases to close to 120 points when comparing students students coming from German-speaking families and students from immigrant families. Against this evidence, the German government focused on providing school-based support that targeted disadvantaged students, decided upon common education standards for all states, and created a functioning monitoring system – as a result, it has succeeded in both cutting these gaps and increasing its overall results.

A dog chasing its own tail

However, a lot of criticism surrounds Pisa tests, from methodological claims concerning the statistical model that the test is built upon and the approach that is used to rescale and generalise the scores, to issues on the formulation of problems – the claim being that questions are not equally difficult for pupils around the world. Yet, I believe that the most urgent issue to be addressed is the validity of the test as a whole, and the repercussions that its use might have.

The reasons behind the success stories of the past years are not clear – top performers ranging from Singapore and Hong Kong, with their strongly elitist, extremely competitive systems, to Finland, whose schooling system is founded on egalitarian axioms and minimal homework principles. Nevertheless, policy makers and politicians seem to have relied on the PISA results with religious confidence, as the ultimate truth-teller of a country’s accomplishments, and praising the East Asian success stories.


Due to the rigorously comparative nature of the test, however, it is natural to ask ourselves which outcomes can derive from classifying education systems. Rating a country’s education system according to its performance in a multiple choice quiz is a mechanism that calls for short-sighted fixes directed to merely climbing the rankings. It’s a type of assessment that calls for more standardized testing and repetitive rote learning (which have been repeatedly called into question), and naturally entails an increase in the time dedicated to this kind of preparation. Practicing more quizzes to do better in the next quiz, it makes perfect sense – but it sounds a lot like a dog chasing its own tail.

Cutting straight to the point

Ultimately and more fundamentally, what is the PISA test’s capacity to depict a dependable picture of functioning school systems around the world? It is based on raw knowledge, which doesn’t necessarily reflect a system’s ability to broaden a student’s mind. It rewards analytical thinking and logical reasoning, while shifting attention away from other relevant aspects of the student’s development – the broadening of one’s mindset through history, philosophy, literature, the development of an interdisciplinary attitude, the ability to think outside the box, fluency in writing, civic-mindedness.

It aims at evaluating the school’s ability to build an attractive future employee rather than a multifaceted, culturally-awake individual, focusing on limited competences rather than human growth. It fails in appreciating the complexity of learning, and the role of well-roundedness in education, reducing its analysis to short problem solving and tricky questions bypassing.

The idea that education in a country is successful if its students perform well in maths and science is constrictive and deceptive. Maybe the question we should be asking ourselves is what we expect from our education systems, rather than what is the secret behind the Finnish miracle or Singapore’s triumphs.


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