Education International
Education International

PISA for Development: raising the bell jar on access and equity

published 9 August 2016 updated 9 August 2016
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The focus on Africa around PISA for Development requires some context. First it is necessary to investigate the relationship between PISA and PISA for Development, then to look at issues of access and finally to analyse issues of equity.PISA tests a random sample of 5000 students in each country at the age of 15 in order to provide a picture of further education readiness. It is therefore a test of cumulative learning as Ward and Zoido point out in their article PISA for Development[1]. It addresses attitudes to learning as well as cognitive ‘truths’ and it has a broader knowledge framework than just knowledge application.

PISA, as we know, can be seen as little more than league tables or a rich mixture of data that allows for the development of evidence based policy to advance the students’ and teachers’ experience. It is not simply either, it uniquely correlates questionnaire outcomes with the views of stakeholders and comes up with policy proposals. Education International has found many of these proposals helpful. PISA for Development adopts this same approach.

EI is on the record as continually pointing out that the league tables are an irritant and not at all helpful. The noise that comes from them obfuscates good policy development rather than assisting it. As a result of this PISA for Development has a stated aim of not producing league tables.

EI knows from its own survey on teachers’ perceptions of assessment around the world (to be released) that teachers in some high income OECD countries are more mistrustful of international assessments, but they also see the results of assessments more often and make better use of the data.

Should it be the case that high income OECD countries are entitled to this information arm wrestle and others aren’t? It is also the case according to our survey data that the results of assessments are used to inform education reforms frequently in rich OECD countries and infrequently in low income countries.

While this dichotomy is perhaps not surprising it raises some basic questions about access to information. The question for PISA for Development has been how does a transnational assessment tool aimed at checking readiness for further learning help countries where further education is the preserve of the few? Widen the question further and why should access to further education be so different around the world?

PISA for Development has in true OECD fashion focused much of its efforts on the technical challenges of developing questions that account for a lower literacy and numeracy level as well as working to cover a much larger proportion of the population who have already left school. OECD has largely overcome the technical barriers and has developed a tool that links to the original PISA tool as well as providing more fine grained data at the lower end of achievement.

The philosophical question for me is how does this data empower African countries, Latin American countries, countries from anywhere on the planet, to equalise the issues of access to knowledge. If PISA for Development obfuscates this issue then it is not helpful. What is OECD’s plan to help build policy making capacity in the new countries it is venturing into and how will this be communicated to the countries who are coming on board? I value OECD data, but it can’t be just hand over a cheque and get the results in xxx months’ time.

Thankfully, much of the evidence is to the contrary. PISA has given Brazil, Mexico, Kazakstán and many other countries a better handle on which policies are working and has done the hard work of building policy making capacity. We also know it does not stop over reaction or bad ideology from influencing policy development.

England is a good example. OECD results were cherry picked by the then Education Secretary Michael Gove who used small bits of evidence to support a further fracturing of the system. This is despite the OECD telling countries with highly autonomous schools like England and New Zealand that the importance of a systemic approach to teacher and curriculum development was paramount. You can see from their OECD country review that Scotland, that has largely avoided the ignominy of highly autonomous schools, has been one of the best at this. They developed a teachers council with teachers union representatives working in partnership with government, they have a collective agreement that provides guarantees and guidance around Professional Learning and Development, this is a place where the system ties the autonomous schools together.

Sweden also used OECD league tables to support an emergent free school movement that a subsequent OECD country review partially blamed for Sweden’s problems. The OECD cannot control the political predilections of particular countries. Our unions in Sweden, the US, Ireland and elsewhere have used OECD data to hold their governments to account.

There are of course exceptions to the arm wrestle. Germany responded to a bump in their ranking by trusting teachers and the profession to deal with the information in a thoughtful and professional manner. This indeed happened without any major structural change, teachers learnt about the gaps in their students’ knowledge and went about filling them.

The fact is countries see international assessment data through the prism of their own policy and practice. This is the case whether you are in Africa, Asia or America. Information is not inherently good or bad, but access to it should not be reserved for the few at the expense of the many. PISA for development offers an opportunity for countries who have not been able to compare their students’ knowledge and attitudinal base with others around the world, to do just that. How governments chose to use this data, whether it is in collaboration with teachers and teacher unions to improve the education system or in pursuit of policies that limit educational opportunity, is of course a matter for each individual country to navigate.

I hold that information matters and that all countries have the right to it, what they do with it should be supported with good policy advice, but ultimately it is up to them.


[1] Ward, M., & Zoido, P. (2015). PISA for Development. ZEP: Zeitschrift für Internationale Bildungsforschung und Entwicklungspädagogik, 38(4), 21