Assessment - Poor performers pull out of Pisa

29th November 2013 at 00:00
India blames cultural bias for withdrawal from global study

Countries that have performed poorly in the world's most influential education study are dropping out amid claims that its question papers are culturally biased and its rankings are counterproductive.

India is one of several low-ranked nations that will be absent from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) results, which will be published on Tuesday.

Of the 16 countries that finished bottom of the Pisa 2009 table - compiled from the results of tests taken by 15-year-olds around the world - nine have not taken part in Pisa 2012.

There are new participants to replace them, many countries are eagerly awaiting the findings of Pisa 2012 and a record number are expected to enter in 2015. But the withdrawals highlight aspects of Pisa that are coming in for significant criticism.

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which runs the study, suggested that nations had pulled out because of the "cost and organisational issues" of taking part in Pisa every three years.

But in India, a rising economic power with its own space programme, different factors appear to be at play.

When students in two Indian states, Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, took the Pisa 2009 tests, their results prompted national soul-searching about the quality of schools. In reading and maths, Himachal Pradesh finished slightly above bottom-placed Kyrgyzstan and significantly below the rest of the 74 participating systems. It also came last in science.

Tamil Nadu did better, but only very slightly, finishing above Himachal Pradesh and Kyrgyzstan but below all the other countries in reading, maths and science.

Asked to explain these embarrassing results, the Indian government reportedly blamed cultural bias. An official from its education ministry claimed that the topics covered in Pisa questions were particularly difficult for students in rural areas of the country.

"If the child hasn't heard of airbags, hot-air balloons and ATMs, he won't even attempt those questions," the official told The Times of India.

This criticism echoes the views of academics who question whether it is possible for Pisa to accurately compare educational performance in such a linguistically and culturally diverse array of countries.

This week Professor Jenny Ozga, an expert in the field at the University of Oxford, became the latest voice to add to this chorus. "People have been struggling for decades to design tests that remove the contextual features that shape and support pupils' performance. It cannot be done," she said.

But the OECD has argued that Pisa is valid because it includes such a "vast" variety of questions. And this week a spokesman told TES that although it was up to India to explain its absence from the study, partiality was not an issue. "All the other countries that have taken part seem happy that there is no cultural bias," he said.

Others agree. The Times of India, which has portrayed its government as "chickening out" of Pisa, quoted education experts in the country who believe that its poor showing in the tests is down to teaching methods rather than cultural bias. But that raises another important issue: whether the damaging publicity from the rankings produced by Pisa could be deterring some countries from taking part.

John Bangs, chair of the OECD Trade Union Advisory Committee's working group on education, wants the organisation to scrap the tables. "That is the problem with the rankings," he said. "You get countries like Kyrgyzstan who finish bottom and it just doesn't help them, so they end up leaving Pisa."

There is also anxiety among higher-performing nations about their exact positions in next week's Pisa tables. A French newspaper predicted in May that the country could be in for its own "Pisa shock". Wales is still reeling from its 2009 performance and its education minister Huw Lewis has warned that the principality is unlikely to improve its position in next week's results. His Swedish counterpart is also pessimistic.

There are even whispers that perennial Pisa star Finland may not do quite so well in the latest study, which will focus on maths.

See next week's TES for coverage of the Pisa results.

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