'Pisa tests fail to recognise what's important in education and should be ignored'

The world's most influential education rankings reward outdated approach to teaching, says leading academic

Emma Seith

News article image

The world’s most influential education rankings should be “ignored entirely” because they fail to measure the most important aspects of education such as creativity, according to a leading academic.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) pushes schools to conform to basic academic abilities without valuing the skills needed in the 21st century, says Professor Yong Zhao, from the University of Oregon.

The league tables make as much sense as university students competing to see who can drink the most beer, according to Professor Zhao, an expert in the impact of globalization on education.

“You’re maybe the best drinker but you’ve got to think, ‘Is it good for you and does it matter?’”

According to Professor Zhao, Pisa – which provides a snapshot comparison of how well 15-year-olds in different countries perform in reading, maths and science – homogenises education systems.

America has struggled to perform well in the tests, ranking an estimated 27th in math out of the 34 OECD countries in 2012, below the international average. Performances in science and reading were both close to the average.

Asian countries have performed much better, with Shanghai the top ranked jurisdiction. But Professor Zhao said that a homogeneous workforce was not what was required for a successful future. Instead, he said, countries needed “creative, entrepreneurial talents, able to create value for others”.

Narrow spectrum of skills

“We should ignore Pisa entirely,” Professor Zhao added in an interview with TES. “I don’t think it is of any value. If you look at the so-called high-scoring areas, like Shanghai and all the East Asian countries, they are trying to get away from what has made them high on Pisa [rankings].”

The academic, who was educated in China, said that the country’s education system was an effective machine that could instill what the government wanted students to learn, but it did not nurture creativity. The result is that China has a population with similar skills on a narrow spectrum, he claimed.

Professor Zhao is not the first academic to criticise Pisa. TES has reported on experts who have “serious problems” with the rankings (bit.ly/PisaFlawed). Some criticise the statistical techniques used to compile the results, while others dismiss the whole idea of being able to accurately rank such diverse education systems.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which administers Pisa, has sought to broaden assessment for the next round of rankings, the results of which will be published in December. They will include the outcomes from a new “teamwork test” alongside scores in maths, reading and science.

Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD, said that the test, measuring “collaborative problem-solving”, could change the way that Pisa was viewed.

But Professor Zhao insisted that success should depend not on good Pisa scores, but instead on emphasising what makes us human: the ability to design, tell stories, understand emotions, entertain and find meaning.

Young people all over the world were leaving university unable to find work, he added.

Want to keep up with the latest education news and opinion? Follow TES USA on Twitter and like TES USA on Facebook.

Register to continue reading for free

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you

Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

Latest stories

Covid catch-up: Why talk of a crisis in education is too simple

Why calling everything a 'crisis' is damaging

The tendency to label any issue a crisis means we overlook opportunities for innovation, say three teacher-researchers
Mark Harrison, Stephen Chatelier, and Elke Van dermijnsbrugge 13 Jun 2021