The three test scores that will shape UK education

1st January 2016 at 00:00
Pisa results will also assess students’ teamworking abilities for the first time

It is likely that the single biggest event in education this year will be the publication of three numbers.

When the results of the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) are released in December, they will reveal how 15-year-olds in this country rank in maths, reading and science compared with their peers across the world. The scores are likely to be used by education ministers to criticise past reforms and justify new ones, not just in the UK but in all of the 70 countries and territories that participated in last year’s tests.

The influence of the triennial assessments on global education policy has grown steadily since they were first introduced in 2000.

But this year Andreas Schleicher – the man who runs Pisa for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) – predicts a big shift in the way the results are viewed. This is because they will highlight how well pupils in each country work together for the first time, through a new Pisa test in “collaborative problem-solving”.

Test of ‘collaborative skills’

“If students are good at maths, if they are good at reading, we take it for granted that they are also a good problem-solver and a good collaborator,” Mr Schleicher tells TES. “But maybe that’s not going to be true.

“It’s the first time countries are going to have the evidence and it’s going to be interesting and important. If we find some countries are very good in solving problems but not good at collaborating, I think [governments] are going to pay attention because it is going to matter.” Under the new test, 15-year-olds who took part in Pisa last year were given computer-based tasks in which they worked through a “chat” function with computer-generated virtual collaborators to solve a problem.

The measurement focuses primarily on the way a pupil engages with others, rather than solely on the correct solution.

Mr Schleicher says that while maths, reading and science scores will continue to be significant, employers are looking for the education system to deliver a far wider set of skills, including teamwork and communication.

“In our economy and in our society, social skills play an ever-increasing role and we know very little about how the school system is preparing students for them,” he says.

“Even innovation is no longer about having a great idea and doing it. It’s about being able to connect the dots with other people – people who might think differently from you. Perhaps for students, it’s not going to matter as much as an exam score, but I think for the education system, it is very important.”

He may be right in the long run. But in December, it is still likely to be the headline test scores in science – this year’s main focus – and reading and maths that will attract the most attention. Two years ago, when the 2012 results were published, the UK’s performance was shown to have flat-lined (see graphic, opposite), allowing Coalition ministers to use them as a justification for school reform.

But in December, they may find it harder to deflect blame for disappointing performance on to previous Labour administrations.

Last year, education secretary Nicky Morgan declared that it was her ambition for Britain to be “one of the top five performing countries worldwide – and the best in Europe – for English and maths by the end of our next term in office [2020].”


Meet ‘the most important man in world education’

Andreas Schleicher’s official job title is “director for education and skills, and special adviser on education policy to the secretary-general at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris”.

But his role has perhaps been best described by former education secretary Michael Gove, who labelled him as “the most important man in world education”.

The Pisa rankings that Mr Schleicher runs have already caused shockwaves in governments and their power over global education policy is only growing. But this quiet, unassuming German mathematician prefers not to reflect on his personal influence. “People may like the message, they may not, but I think it is very important that we make education a more evidence-based profession,” he tells TES. “It is important that we measure success, not just as ‘Are we covering this better than we did last year?’ but ‘How do we compare against the world’s education leaders?’ It’s my job to do it in the most appropriate, technically sound and fair way possible.

“Pisa is a collaborative effort of a huge number of people. My role is to coordinate the effort, analyse and interpret the results.”

And how best to measure education systems is the problem that Mr Schleicher has been collaborating on for decades. His interest was sparked during his time studying physics at the University of Hamburg in the late 1980s when he went to a lecture by Neville Postlethwaite, an English educationalist. The pair later collaborated on the first international reading test run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), which now runs rival education rankings Timss and Pirls. Mr Schleicher rose to director for analysis there before joining the OECD in the mid-1990s.

He refuses to make any predictions about the survey’s next set of results but notes: “Pisa is not magic. Those education systems that do the right things, that are consistent in implementation, that are ambitious in what they try to do and get it done, those are the ones that progress.”

Helen Ward

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