Pisa's tests could get curiouser and curiouser

21st June 2013 at 01:00
Creativity and foreign languages may join league table measures

Tests in foreign language skills and creativity are being planned for the world's most influential international education league tables, TES can reveal.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which plays an increasingly important role in many countries' education policies, is expanding to rank students' ability to cope with globalisation and immigration.

"It's about (asking) `how do we thrive in an increasingly diverse interconnected world?'" said Andreas Schleicher, education special adviser at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the man who runs Pisa.

TES understands from another source that writing and speaking, musical and visual skills, and student curiosity are among a number of other new assessment areas also being considered.

Mr Schleicher said that the demand for assessing "global competencies" was coming from a "broad range of countries" in Asia, northern Europe and South America.

"To help students get work around the world is (an important part) of it but also to live in increasingly heterogeneous societies," he told TES in an exclusive interview. "Migration is posing huge challenges for most countries, both from the people who migrate but also from the people who have to accommodate (them). How do you actually take benefit out of that? Diversity is not a problem of a knowledge economy but actually its greatest potential."

Asked exactly what might be tested, Mr Schleicher said: "Foreign languages is the most obvious part but also the capacity of individuals to engage in different value systems, the capacity of individuals to make sound judgements. Can you deal with uncertainty? Can you deal with ambiguity?"

OECD member countries are also understood to be thinking of adding students' ethical conduct, creativity and reasoning to categories measured by Pisa.

The ideas have been welcomed by teaching unions but others are concerned that the OECD is being overambitious.

Sheila Lawlor, director of UK thinktank Politeia, said: "Trying to measure things like creativity and so on with a huge cohort from a range of backgrounds is not a sensible task and is a waste of money. It can't be done.

"A huge testing juggernaut like Pisa should not go off on a tangent trying to measure airy-fairy notions like curiosity. It should concentrate on what can be identified - the basics of essential subjects."

Since the first Pisa study in 2000, its tests, run every three years, have concentrated on assessing the ability of students from different countries in the traditional academic areas of reading, maths and science.

But now the OECD is adding more "21st-century skills", which cut across conventional subjects and which Mr Schleicher claims that schools have not traditionally excelled in.

Pisa 2012 - the results of which will be published later this year - added a problem-solving test and Mr Schleicher is confident that after some "very promising" pilots a collaborative problem-solving assessment will follow in 2015. Next, he told TES, will come "global competencies".

"We do not yet know how to build a robust assessment framework around it but it is something we are going to work on," Mr Schleicher said. "You need to bring out a methodology for this. You need to make sure that those things are measured in a way that is comparable across cultures (and) contexts."

The OECD official has been described by England's education secretary Michael Gove as "the most important man in world education". But his latest proposals could be at odds with Mr Gove's reforms, which emphasise traditional subject knowledge.

Mr Schleicher cited Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan, Norway and Sweden as countries that were interested in the proposed assessments.

John Bangs, chair of the OECD's education trade union advisory committee, said: "It is a wholly positive development that countries are at last thinking out of the box about what defines successful education. It could challenge governments in countries like England to look at their own school league tables and say, `are we missing something when we evaluate the quality of education?'."

Mr Schleicher said that 21st-century skills would assume a greater relative importance within Pisa as the labour market valued them more: "If we do find that problem-solving skills are a more important predictor for success in life than reading and maths then we are going to give it more emphasis."

Schools had not been good at teaching such skills, he claimed. "Look at what schools do - they use multiple choice tests and what can you test in multiple choice? It is the reproduction of subject matter and content. That is precisely what computers are much better at.

"Basically, the kinds of things that schools are traditionally best at (are) losing labour market relevance very quickly."

Language barriers

European Commission research published last year uncovered huge differences in the foreign language skills of students in 14 countries.

It looked at the percentage of 14- to 15-year-olds who could express themselves "clearly and effectively" in their first foreign language.

Malta finished top, with 60 per cent of students being able to do so, followed by Sweden with 57 per cent, Estonia with 41 per cent and the Netherlands with 36 per cent.

England came bottom with just 2 per cent. Also at the foot of the table were France, Flemish-speaking Belgium and Poland, with 5, 7 and 10 per cent respectively.

Photo credit: Corbis

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