Keep a sense of proportion about PISA tests, says Cambridge Professor on Chilean TV

Janet Downs's picture
Beyond PISA panic, high stakes testing, a narrow curriculum and school privatisation: Chile is the latest in a growing list of countries eager to learn from the Cambridge Primary Review

Professor Robin Alexander, director of the Cambrjdge Primary Review, recently met Chile's Minister of Education in Santiago and gave an extended television interview introduced by the Chair of the Senate Education Commission. Educators in an increasing number of countries are looking to the Review for a more visionary and effective alternative to the Anglo-American routine of PISA panic, high stakes testing, a narrowly instrumental curriculum and school marketisation/privatisation. View Robin Alexander's two-part Nuevas Miradas interview: Here are some of the issues raised.

“Don’t panic about PISA,” said Robin in an extended interview on Chilean TV about educational standards , the uses and abuses of international evidence and the Cambridge Primary Review (CPR).

The CPR was necessary to discover what kind of primary education would best meet the needs of children in the 21st century, Robin said in answer to a question about why the CPR was established. He outlined how, for nearly thirty years, the UK education system had been subjected to quickly changing reforms enforced by different governments often without being properly evaluated. Some of these policies were good: the last Government tried to address the needs of disadvantaged children, for example. But others were not so good, such as the same Government’s obsession with curriculum, standards, testing and pedagogy.

The interviewer wanted to know how results could be measured. Robin said assessment was essential. Accountability was essential. But there were better ways of measuring educational performance in primary schools than by tests in a limited number of subjects. Measuring outcomes could be done via inspection, research, and by understanding how children learn. But relying on high stakes tests in a narrow range of subjects risked distorting the curriculum if teachers concentrated mainly on what was being measured. There was, he said, an important synergy between literacy and numeracy on one hand and humanities and the wider curriculum on the other.

Panic over a country’s relative standing in international education league tables resulted in governments imposing strategies which they thought might push their countries back up the tables. But it was important to remember that the most influential of these tests, PISA*, tested just one age group, 15 year-olds, in only three subjects: reading, maths and science. The results, although important, should not be regarded as a sign of the effectiveness of a country’s whole education system and should not dictate national policy.

Robin said there were similarities between many of the countries that came top in PISA: they were small, rich (high GDP) and had a relatively small gap between the results of high and low attainers. There was also a narrower income gap between the richest in society and the poorest. Unequal societies produce unequal outcomes, Robin said.

In Finland, one of the world’s top-performing countries in PISA tests, education policy was entwined with social and economic policy. The world admires Finland but unfortunately copies the United States – this was not good. However, Robin warned, no country should just copy another country – each country was unique and should study its problems and try to address these in the light of its own culture.

The interview can be downloaded here. It has a Spanish introduction (with English subtitles) but the interview is in English (with Spanish subtitles). The English speaking section begins at 2.26 minutes.

*Programme for International Student Assessment (see faqs above)

UPDATE 4 December 2012. The original article, posted 3 December, did not have the context.  This has been provided in the first two paragraphs.  "Professor Alexander" in the original text has been replaced by "Robin".  The article above refers only to Part One of the two part interview.

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