PISA Scores and Why They Matter: The Impact of High-Stakes Tests on Instruction – Part 3

Several years ago, I read journalist Amanda Ripley’s book The Smartest Kids in The World. I mean, what teacher wouldn’t be sucked in by that title? It proved as provocative as its name, and I have to admit that prior to reading her book, I had never heard of PISA.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide survey conducted every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). First administered in the year 2000 to a third of a million 15-year-olds in 43 countries, PISA measures critical thinking skills in mathematics, science, and reading in ways unlike any previously designed tests. So now, after spending three weeks building a case against focusing on test scores, I’m going to talk about the importance of test scores.

PISA has surveyed five times. In the most recent results available from the 2012 PISA survey of 34 countries, U.S. teenagers ranked 27th in math, 20th in science, and 17th in reading. These scores have remained fairly consistent since the initial 2000 survey. These are alarmingly low scores, especially when noted that the United States ranked 2nd in spending per pupil. But really, aren’t we just talking about another test? Other than the fact that it’s kind of embarrassing, who cares? Why should we be concerned with our nation’s performance on this test?

The PISA is different.

Unlike our own inexhaustible selection of state and national tests, the PISA is designed to measure critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, and creativity. According to Ripley, “Economists had found an almost one to one match between PISA scores and a nation’s long-term economic growth. . . .The ability of a workforce to learn, think, and adapt was [is] the ultimate stimulus package” (p. 24). Ripley’s calculations purport that if the United States had Finland’s PISA scores, GDP would be increasing at a rate of one to two trillion dollars per year. (Good-bye national debt!) And honestly, isn’t this a big part of why we educate – to enable people to become more effective, productive, contributing members of society? So PISA scores do, in fact, indicate how we’re doing with that objective. I don’t bring this up to join some national-flagellation-over-test-scores trend. I’m merely setting a stage to examine practices around testing.

It’s important here to note that the United States is not a single entity, but rather a very diverse group of states. Our highest-achieving states do as well as the highest-achieving nations in the world. Our lowest-performing states do as poorly as low-performing nations like Jordan and Nigeria. So, while there’s not one simple reform that could be effectively adopted overall, we can certainly learn from what the high-achieving nations are doing — some of which might surprise you.

Finnish students, who scored first in reading and toward the top in math and science in initial PISA surveys, don’t start school until age seven, rarely have more than a half-hour of homework a night, and have no “gifted” or “accelerated” classes. While the status and training of Finnish teachers is well worth examining, the most salient difference is that Finland uses very little standardized testing.

Indulge me while I highlight that last bit, as the takeaway of this whole PISA discussion.

While Finland employs almost no standardized tests, it consistently scores at the top in international comparisons, while the United States, which consistently performs near the bottom in international academic competency, continues to obsess with standardized tests as a measure of success.

I believe the research is on my side when I state that standardized testing is killing instruction in America. Prize-winning teacher Ron Maggiano left a 33-year career that he loved, saying

I can no longer cooperate with a testing regime that I believe is suffocating creativity and innovation in the classroom. We are not really educating our students anymore. We are merely teaching them to pass a test. This is wrong. Period.

Read more about Ron Maggiano’s analysis of the effects of our testing culture in “11 Problems Created by the Standardized Testing Obsession,” as published in The Washington Post.