Who is telling our story? PISA?

In my last piece, I wrote about the importance of educators telling the story of education today. I also mentioned a few of the other voices out there that are telling the story that are either A) misleading or B) downright lies and falsehoods.

Let me first state that I am not a defender of the status quo when it comes to education. I do believe a lot of changes are necessary to improve the learning experiences we provide students as well innovate instruction to make what and how students learn more relevant for them and the communities we serve. With that being said, it seems to me that many of the current storytellers today aren’t leading to the kind of changes necessary to improve education.

One of the storytellers I mentioned in my last post was the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), an assessment that allows educational performances to be examined on a common measure across countries.  The United States has not done well on PISA and historically has not done well on international benchmarks. However, the rhetoric you hear today in the news and other media would make you think that our current PISA scores reflect an education system that is spiraling downward and in some circumstances failing and therefore, needs major reform. 

This, however, is why the overemphasis on PISA scores as a reflection of student learning and our educational system must be stopped. Learning and the state of our education system cannot be summed up by scores on a test. These test scores do very little to truly measure creativity nor do they measure the motivation and essential non-cognitive skills necessary to pose and solve worthwhile problems. Yet, isn’t so much of what is driving our “ed reform” today based on how every country seems to be scoring better than we are on these international benchmarks?  

Why is it that so many of us gravitate to this idea that a test is the approved metric of choice for demonstrating learning? Perhaps many of the people that like test scores as the metric like them because they did well on tests. They have probably experienced some modicum of success in “the game of life” and probably think, “Hey, I did well on tests and am doing ok, so they must mean something”. This is not to disqualify any of you who have done well on tests, nor does it mean that we shouldn’t have any tests. It simply means that test scores are not the best indicator of learning, nor do they have a causal relationship with success in the “game of life”. In fact, this chart below clearly shows that the more income your family has, the better your score is.

If this data doesn’t convince you that tests scores are really not the best indicator and are not worthy of “telling the story” of how we are doing in education, and you just can’t let go of the importance of PISA, then I do have a bridge to sell you. Mel Riddle, a school leader who writes for NASSP, has been writing about PISA scores for a few years. Here is his latest piece on PISA scores. The most interesting fact is that when you adjust for poverty, which we have more of here in the United States, then our students excel on PISA. We are actually doing better than most of the world.  You don’t hear Arne Duncan talking about that. Our problems are not that our schools are failing but that poverty has more unintended consequences than our “ed reformers” want to acknowledge. Don’t believe it? Just look at the scores.


I will add here that there are some out there who question the validity of using Free/Reduce Price Lunch (FRPL) data as an indicator of poverty as Mel Riddle uses in the above link, but those same people point to this PISA data as their measurement of poverty.

Supposedly, data “nerds” at the DOE say FRPL can’t be used this way.  I don’t know about you, but my faith in the DOE is not very high right now considering their inability to follow the way of other countries that are out-performing us on PISA.  The DOE and States continue to implement untested and unproven reforms while the answers to many of our problems are right there in front of us.   So I guess our DOE and other “ed reformers” want our scores to be like Korea’s and Finland’s but we just don’t want to get there the way they have.  An old 90’s song by C&C Music Factory sounds off in my head, “Things that make you go hmmmmmm.” 

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