It’s time to look carefully at where testing fails to make the grade

Teacher unions have for a long time expressed concern about the growing scope of international tests. In this post, I will point out some of the reasons why Union of Education Norway is especially critical to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). I will also point to some alternative ways of spending resources - to improve education for our kids and students.

So, what is the problem?

Since the first results were published in 2001, the PISA survey has become an important premise for public debate in many countries - and it is used as a lever for introducing extensive reforms. Through the media, and through the way the results are being portrayed and used politically - the PISA survey also has a great influence on people’s perceptions of the education system. In the Norwegian context, we have been through a “PISA-shock” in 2001 which resulted in dramatic changes in the education system. Research shows that Norway is one of the countries where PISA results have had the largest influence, e.g. through changes in the curriculum and our national quality assurance system. Although existing international tests only measure small parts of the outcomes of education, it is coming to use PISA-results as a proxy for total quality of the education systems. Both the profession and researchers are finding that international studies, as PISA, shifts the focus over to short-term solutions for a better ranking, and this takes attention away from long term educational goals that cannot be measured. As a union, we need to respond to this challenge. My message is that we should be much more careful about giving these kinds of results too much weight and impact in our education systems.

Using international surveys and experiences to improve your national system is not a problem in itself, and PISA is also measuring competencies that are important for our students. One of the main problems is the fact that the results do not take into account differences in culture and context. Education is strongly related to culture, history, political systems and language. This makes it difficult to compare results across borders. And we must be careful to adopt other countries’ solutions and practices. The PISA survey is not built on the national curriculum of member countries. The definition and selection of competencies (DeSeCo) was developed through political processes in the OECD and the PISA Board where the political authorities are represented. A recognition of this is missing when media and politicians interpret and present the results of PISA as research. Another problem is the amount of resources, both time and money, we spend on PISA and a number of other international and national surveys, which produce big data on our education system. When it all adds up, is it worth it?

But, what are the alternatives?

As the PISA survey is developing, trying to include and measure a larger range of 21st Century Skills, or World Skills – we as unions have a great responsibility to influence and to present our alternatives. Education International is a key player in this workq and has laid an important foundation for the profession to be heard and included in the development of PISA. We need to work together to ensure an open debate of the theoretical and methodological framework of the survey, and an awareness of what these data are showing, and not showing, and how they should be reported – to increase student’s opportunities for learning and development.

Fundamentally, we believe that a broad view of knowledge must be the basis for change and improvement. We must move away from the notion that comparability of narrow results, or competition on ranking lists, is a necessary or sufficient prerequisite for developing good schools. The main purpose of testing should be to develop and strengthen learningand development - not to collect comparative management data. To do this, we also need time and resources to collect small, local data. There exists a rich range of local data which should also be the starting point for efforts to develop good ECE and schools. A good alternative to big data is to devote more time to strengthen the professional community, so that we can extract and analyze the data that we need, to develop our practices - for the benefit of our students. In this case, another basis for change and improvement is a solid teacher training and a strong system for further and continuing education that ensures that we can take this responsibility as professionals.

 


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Steffen Handal

Steffen Handal is the president of Union of Education Norway (UEN) and EI Executive Board Member, he is particularly engaged in early childhood education policies, teacher professionalism and professional ethics.

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