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Three Lessons from the Latest PISA Scores

A Palestinian ninth grade student writes on the blackboard during a Hebrew class at a Gaza school in Gaza City.

Last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released results from its 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tested more than 510,000 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics, and science in 65 countries and economies. The results of this test not only reflect the literacy, numeracy, and science skills of students in participating countries but also inform policymakers about the learning levels of their students relative to students in other countries and help them set targets for improving education standards.  

While the 2012 data will be analyzed, debated and discussed in the months and years ahead, a few key takeaways from the results have already emerged:

1)  Great advances in enrollment have not been matched by learning…but progress is possible.  The global push for universal primary school enrollment has resulted in significant progress in getting more children into school—with the number of out-of-school children dropping from 102 million in 2000 to 57.2 million in 2011.  However, results from PISA reveal that being in school does not automatically translate into learning in school.  For example, the country of Jordan has a 91 percent primary school enrollment rate and yet their PISA scores put them far below the OECD average and their progress on assessments has stagnated since 2009.  

As the PISA results remind us, the goal of universal education is more than just ensuring that all children spend a specified time in school. Instead, the focus should be that all children learn in school the fundamental skills and capabilities needed to lead healthy and productive lives.  On the bright side, PISA demonstrates that progress is possible—and possible in a relatively short period of time.  Forty of the 65 participating countries improved scores in at least one subject area.  Peru improved the equivalent of almost two grades in math and one grade in reading and science since 2000.  While the current Millennium Development Goals narrowly focus on access to education alone, we should make sure that the next set of  global development goals has an education goal that focuses on both access to education and learning outcomes. 

2)  More money does not necessarily lead to more learning…but more equitable allocation can. Improving literacy and numeracy skills is not just a matter of increasing spending on education but also of investing in areas that improve results.  The United States has one of the highest rates of per capita spending on education and yet PISA results show that they underperform compared to other OECD countries.  Eighteen education systems in OECD countries had higher scores than the Unites States in all three subjects.  From data collected from 2000 to 2009, the OECD has concluded that there was no relationship between average gains in PISA reading scores and country increases in spending between ages 6 to 16 in the same period. 

While high-performing education systems require adequate levels of funding resources to function effectively, after a certain level of expenditure per student how resources are allocated may be more important than the absolute amounts.  Certainly no blueprint exists for the ideal allocation of resources. However, the PISA survey reveals several features of successful education systems where investments should be considered.  These include early individualized assessments to identify struggling students, quality preprimary school especially for socioeconomically disadvantaged children, and improving the quality of teaching through greater autonomy, better training and well-structured incentives.

Meanwhile, countries that performed best tend to allocate resources more equitably between advantaged and disadvantaged schools.  Some countries that showed the most improvement in test scores—such as Mexico, Brazil, Israel and Turkey—recently implemented targeted policies for low-achieving schools or distributed more resources to the most disadvantaged schools and regions.

3)  Along with science, math and reading, non-cognitive skills are critical for lifelong learning and success.  Although PISA scores show the retention levels of important literacy, numeracy and science skills, non-cognitive and character skills remain critical to providing a foundation for success later in life.  A recent report by James Heckman and Tim Kautz argues that often achievement tests only reflect one component on a spectrum of skills needed throughout a life cycle and do not adequately capture character skills—such as grit, drive, creativity and curiosity—that are also highly valued in both school and the labor market.  The report emphasizes that learning does not just exist in a classroom and cannot just be measured by literacy and numeracy scores. Instead, learning is defined as a spectrum of skills acquired over a lifetime that are learned without necessarily improving cognitive skills. 

A background questionnaire that accompanies the PISA exam is an important effort to capture students’ and parents’ perception of their home, school and learning experience.  Assessments should consider the full scope of a child’s learning and ensure that students gain the necessary competencies and skills to participate in their communities and societies as active citizens and productive workers. Building on the first phase of the Learning Metrics Task Force — a group convened by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings and the UNESCO Institute of Statistics working to shift the global debate on education from a focus on access to access plus learning — there is a global conversation in the education community underway to define and measure shared values and skills needed to become successful global citizens and to incorporate these traits into assessment systems..

While the merits and perils of PISA will continue to be debated, the assessment demonstrates that a global shift in attention from just “access to education” to both “access and learning” requires clear and measurable targets. From there, regularly assessing and publicly sharing whether those targets are being met within and across countries can help to inform how countries can improve education for all children and youth.

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