Assessment - Pisa 'pitched too high' for developing nations

21st February 2014 at 00:00
Former Australian PM calls for new approach to global rankings

International league tables are based on tests that are too difficult for developing nations, and "more basic" assessments are needed to measure progress in the weakest education systems, according to former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard.

In an exclusive interview with TES, Ms Gillard argued that although international league tables such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss) were "important" for monitoring the quality of education in the developed world, a new measure was needed to track progress in poorer nations.

Ms Gillard, who was last week appointed chair of the Global Partnership for Education (GPE), said that existing comparisons such as Pisa were too difficult for countries that were "still piecing their education systems together".

Of the 16 countries that finished bottom of the Pisa 2009 table, nine did not take part in the most recent round of assessments in 2012, including bottom-ranked Kyrgyzstan. India, which also chose not to participate, was accused by its own media of "chickening out".

Ms Gillard, who overhauled school accountability while serving as Australian prime minister, added that improved data for measuring educational progress in the developing world could help to secure increased funding for the GPE.

Over the past decade, the organisation has distributed $3.7 billion (pound;2.2 billion) from Western nations to drive educational improvements in the developing world. However, international education funding fell by 15.8 per cent in 2011, prompting the GPE to warn of an impending "learning crisis in developing countries".

"There is a concerning pattern here," Ms Gillard said, adding that improved attainment data would help Western nations to be confident that "their money is doing a good job in driving real change".

She insisted that international league tables were "important for monitoring quality". For example, when Pisa or Timss results were released in Australia, they prompted a debate on the quality of the education system. "That's all to the good. It's starting those debates around the world that's going to drive better practice," she said. "[But] I think there are some difficulties.

"For some countries it might well suit [them], but for other countries that are really still piecing their education systems together, the sophistication and the level of learning that those tests are directed at is likely to be pitched far higher than anything that has been achieved in those education systems.

"It's really not helping anybody improve their education system if the result is that none of the children do well on the test."

Ms Gillard added that the Learning Metrics Task Force - an organisation formed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation and the Brookings Center for Universal Education in the US - was developing new methods of tracking educational progress.

"Some of those things have to be done differently if you're looking at a developing country context," she said. "But I do think you can do something to measure, and then use those measurements in the full context of the populations you are serving, to help drive.greater quality."

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which administers the Pisa rankings, is also working on a "Pisa for development" programme.

Last year several developing nations, including Ghana, Guatemala and Mozambique, were nominated for a pilot project in which a selection of their students were to take Pisa assessments with the goal of establishing a baseline measure to improve from.

But Ms Gillard's ideas have not been universally welcomed. John Bangs, chair of the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee's working group on education, said that creating easier tests for developing countries would be a "simplistic solution to a complex problem".

Fred van Leeuwen, general secretary of Education International, a global federation of education unions, cautioned against more money being spent on testing rather than teachers.

"Funding should be targeted on the marginalised and not on ranking countries with huge out-of-school populations," he said. "Sampling can be used to inform good policy, but assessment alone is no replacement for a coherent, inclusive and high-quality education system. The cure is not more thermometers. Given the critical shortage of teachers, it certainly is more practitioners."

But Michael Davidson, head of the early childhood education and schools division at the OECD, said: "We fully recognise that Pisa needs to be adapted to better fit the educational realities in developing countries."

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