PISA and irony: The 2015 Brown Center Report on American Education

It probably comes as no surprise that I have an extremely low opinion of PISA, the well-intentioned but operationally horrific international testing framework used to compare schooling (I use the word advisedly) in different countries. PISA matters to governments because it gives an apparently objective measure of the ‘effectiveness’ of education and it matters to the rest of us because governments’ desire to score highly in PISA league tables has a massive (and catastophic) effect on systems of education. This is ‘teaching to the test’ at a gargantuan scale, with all the awful consequences that entails. The laudable desire to improve literacy and basic knowledge leads to the consequence that, internationally, education becomes primarily concerned with compliance, standardization and the ability to perform to someone else’s criteria on command. I’d like to think that there is a bit more to it than that. The cost of literacy does not have to be dehumanization or an extrinsically driven populace, and I am quite sure that is not what OECD intends, but that is the systemic effect of these interventions. And so to this report…

This report is interesting on many levels but I would like to draw your attention to section 3, in which it is shown that there is quite a strong negative correlation between intrinsic motivation and the ability to perform well on PISA-oriented math tests, at an inter-country level. In other words, countries reporting the lower levels of intrinsic motivation tend to report higher levels of attainment (ie. test compliance).  Within a given country there is a very modest positive correlation – for instance, American kids who like math tend to do slightly better on the tests than those that do not, but it is not enough of a difference to make a difference.

The authors seem puzzled by this! I leave you to draw your own conclusions about standardized tests, grades, schools, education and government interventions. Paolo Freire and Ivan Illich would have had a field day.

Address of the bookmark: http://www.ewa.org/sites/main/files/file-attachments/brown_ctr_2015_v2.pdf

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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