How the world reported PISA

Main findings on student perforamnce
Main findings on student performance

Much of the media coverage around PISA focused on the strong performance of Asia’s students. But regular followers of the OECD’s assessments of worldwide student performance had something else on their minds: where’s Finland?

They weren’t the only ones feeling troubled: “The golden days are over,” lamented Finnbay, a Finnish media outlet, as it reported that Finland, long a PISA poster-child, had “dropped from the top of the league.” Yle, the national broadcaster, even wondered if the country’s education system might be at risk of sharing “the fate of another fallen national champion – Nokia.” Numerous explanations were offered for the Nordic country’s performance, including that it may be a victim of its own PISA success.

“Some argue that complacency and focus on explaining the past to thousands of education tourists have shifted attention away from developing Finland’s own school system,” wrote Pasi Sahlberg, who works on education reform in Finland. In response, Finland’s education minister, Krista Kiuru, promised “strong action,” according to Finnbay. There was handwringing, too, across the border: “No other country has fallen so abruptly as Sweden in maths over a ten-year span,” announced TheLocal, a Swedish news outlet.

Tremors from the Nordic countries’ PISA showing were felt in the United Kingdom, where the Financial Times reported that the performance of the country’s students was “stagnating”. That, combined with the results of Finland and Sweden in PISA, put the education minister, Michael Gove, “under pressure to defend his Scandinavian-inspired education reforms,” according to the FT.  In response, it wrote, Mr Gove said “a ‘more rigorous system of accountability’ was also needed to make sure that poor performance did not go unchecked.”

As well as looking at national results, the media also examined PISA itself. In The Guardian, Mona Chalabi discussed “the basic claim of the assessment – that it is able to accurately capture the full range of students’ abilities and compare them across the world.” (You can find some FAQs about PISA’s methodology and approach here.) There was discussion, too, of the usefulness of international comparisons in education. Writing in a Washington Post blog before the PISA release, Valerie Strauss warned about the “fetishization of international test scores”. As The Economist noted, however, “critics will point out the rankings have imperfections. But it gives us a clue to how successful our classrooms are—and that is hard to ignore.”

Away from making international comparisons, PISA also looks into how factors outside the classroom affect student performance, most notably, perhaps, social background. The importance of some of these seemed to receive particular recognition in France, where Libération (in French) described the country as the “world champion in education inequalities”.

Writing on The Huffington Post, Jacques Attali, a leading economist and public intellectual in France, warned that the relatively weak performance of disadvantaged children in France’s schools posed an existential crisis for his country: “Unless this changes, millions of talented individuals … will be lost, and they will leave, frustrated, to go to other countries or underground. France will lose her soul in this. And her future.”

What about the “winners” – the Chinese city of Shanghai as well as OECD Members like Japan and Korea, among other Asian economies, that topped the PISA tables? While their achievements in education were widely recognized, there was concern, too, about the price being paid by the region’s hard-working students.

Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper noted that while Korean students performed well in PISA, the results also demonstrated that “they showed a lack of interest in the subjects.” This is sometimes attributed to the relentless pressure on Korean kids to succeed, which sees many follow an intensive eight-hour day in school with another three or four hours in an evening cram-school.

“For South Korean teenagers a double shift of school, every week day, is just a way of life,” the BBC’s Reeta Chakrabarti reported. But there are signs of a shift in attitudes, she added, quoting the country’s education minister, Seo Namsoo: “We still have a long way to go,” he said, “but we are doing some soul-searching in our society, and our goals now are about how to make our people happier.”

Useful links

PISA 2012

Brian Keeley

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  1. Ulric Schwela - 19/12/2013 Reply

    Interesting results and commentary, but nowhere has anyone mentioned that not everyone can be at the top! The way the results are presented here, as a relative ranking, can be unfair to the performance of individual countries. It would be useful to also present results in terms of absolute figures as a graph. It may be that the performance gap is very small between the top ten or twenty countries, or at least smaller than is suggested by the ranking value. Countries that have made an improvement in their absolute score are also at risk of being presented as having declined relative to countries that have made greater improvements, which would present a false picture. Equally, the absolute gap elsewhere in this list might be much greater than suggested by the relative ranking. I look forward to an updated article reflecting this.

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