International Testing Controversy: Bad Attitudes or Bad Measures?

Controversy has erupted in the past few weeks over the results of the Pisa tests, run every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). These tests seek to measure pupil performance in maths, science and reading in 65 different countries and local administrations. This time around they have shown Asian pupils storming ahead of their western peers, with the top positions going to Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.

A storm of controversy

Some commentators in Europe and North America have gone on the offensive, criticising the validity of the tests and questioning the way that pupils are selected and prepared for Pisa in the leading countries. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has responded by leaping to the tests' defence, accusing critics of being bad losers.

But assuming that these tests, which involve 500,000 teenagers across the world, have at least some validity, what lessons can we draw?

A matter of attitude

The most obvious difference between the education systems in these countries, and the one on which many commentators have leapt, is the attitude of pupils. While disruptive behaviour continues to be a major consideration for teachers in the west, pupils in Asian countries are renowned for their respect and discipline.

This is clearly not just a matter of teacher training. Huge efforts are put into training western teachers in tackling poor behaviour and motivating pupils. Almost every school has carefully constructed systems of reward and discipline to shape behaviour. Yet still the difference remains.

This is surely a matter of the wider culture. For better of for worse we have learned to challenge or even ignore authority in the west, and unless parents firmly back teachers as an exception then this will inevitably disrupt the classroom.

But the value put on education is also an issue. With thousands of children being subjected to lessons in which they will never find neither use nor interest, only to be thrown on the heap of unemployment at the end of school, can we be surprised that they don't value their learning? Or that performance is not what we might want?

What's being measured

There is another question to be considered. Even if these tests are conducted in a fair and valid way, what do they actually measure?

They measure performance in tests of maths, science and reading, a combination of knowledge in those areas and an ability to perform in a test environment. Countries that put a heavy emphasis on these skills will naturally excel at such tests, but if we want our children to experience a broader sort of learning then does it even matter how well they do in such tests?

A testing culture

This comes back to the obsession even western governments show with testing, with comparing pupils with each other. Should education really be about such tests, whether they're set by the school, the government or the OECD? Or should it be about enriching the lives of pupils? If the latter is the case then maybe we need a new test, to see which countries excel at enrichment.


Photo by ccarlstead via Flickr creative commons

Andrew Knighton

About Andrew Knighton

I'm a writer and ex-teacher. You can find more of my writing on education at: I also have a blog on reading and writing:

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