INTERNATIONAL surveys of pupils' performance are biased against non-English-speaking Europeans because they are
invariably devised by Americans and Canadians, French government officials believe.
At present, test questions are usually drafted in English and then translated into other languages. But Gerard Bonnet, a senior administrator in the French education ministry, told the European Conference on Educational Research in Edinburgh that cultural and methodological bias is the inevitable result.
Mr Bonnet argues that each country should be allowed to set its own questions in its own language. A pilot project involving England, Finland, France and Italy has confirmed that this was possible. He said: "The advantages of overcoming cultural bias by using indigenous material outweigh the difficulty of making the study comparable."
The French objections stem partly from the International Adult Literacy Survey in 1995, which found relatively high illiteracy levels in France. The French government refused to accept the finding and managed to have it suppressed.
Mr Bonnet said countries should not be raned in league tables. It was more productive to point to the improvements needed in specific areas. "Global differences are not particularly helpful to policy-makers even though they are relished by the media," he said. The French are also wary of any attempt to unify countries' curricula and teaching methods - one of the predicted consequences of influential surveys such as the 40-country Third International Maths and Science Study conducted in 1995.
Mr Bonnet said that comparative studies should focus on education issues that reflect European priorities, such as the mobility of workers. For example, surveys should be carried out to establish if young people were fluent in other European languages. "The need for an understanding of shared European values ... should prompt Europe to obtain indicators about knowledge of its history and geography, civics and the environment," he said.
But European indicators could also cover new ground, such as the "value" that is added by schools or regions, he said.
More reports next week from the European Conference on