Yong Zhao, the brilliant education analyst, writes here about the great PISA illusion. If you have not read any of Zhao’s books, do so now. If you have not heard him speak, google him or invite him to your next big conference. He is insightful, provocative, thoughtful, absolutely delightful! He is a master at making people think and debunking hoaxes.  Please read the entire post to learn how we and the rest of the world have been hoaxed by promoters of fake ideas.

He writes:

PISA is a masterful magician. It has successfully created an illusion of education quality and marketed it to the world. In 2018, 79 countries took part in this magic show out of the belief that this triennial test accurately measures the quality of their education systems, the effectiveness of their teachers, the ability of their students, and the future prosperity of their society.

PISA’s magical power in the education universe stems from its bold claims and successful marketing. It starts by tapping into the universal anxiety about the future. Humans are naturally concerned about the future and have a strong desire to know if tomorrow is better than, or at least as good as, today. Parents want to know if their children will have a good life; politicians want to know if their nations have the people to build a more prosperous economy; the public wants to know if the young will become successful and contributing members of the society.

PISA brilliantly exploits the anxiety and desire of parents, politicians, and the public with three questions (OECD, 1999, p. 7):

  • How well are young adults prepared to meet the challenges of the future?
  • Are they able to analyse, reason and communicate their ideas effectively?
  • Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life?

These words begin the document that introduced PISA to the world in 1999 and have been repeated in virtually all PISA reports ever since. The document then states the obvious: “Parents, students, the public and those who run education systems need to know” (OECD, 1999, p. 7). And as can be expected, PISA offers itself as the fortuneteller by claiming that:

PISA assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students, near the end of their compulsory education, have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. … The assessment does not just ascertain whether students can reproduce knowledge; it also examines how well students can extrapolate from what they have learned and can apply that knowledge in unfamiliar settings, both in and outside of school. This approach reflects the fact that modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know. (OECD, 2016, p. 25).

This claim not only offers PISA as a tool to sooth anxiety but also, and perhaps more importantly, makes it the tool for such purpose because it helps to knock out its competitors. As an international education assessment, PISA came late. Prior to PISA, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) had already been operating international assessments since the 1960s, offering influential programs such as TIMSS and PIRLS. For a start-up to beat the establishment, it must offer something different and better. That’s exactly what PISA promised: a different and better assessment…

However, the claim, the foundation upon which PISA has built its success, has been seriously challenged. First, there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies. Second, the claim is an imposition of a monolithic and West-centric view of societies on the rest of the world. Third, the claim distorts the purpose of education.

Made-up Claim

The claim that PISA measures knowledge and skills essential for the modern society or the future world is not based on any empirical evidence. Professor Stefan Hopmann of the University of Vienna writes:

There is no research available that proves this assertion beyond the point that knowing something is always good and knowing more is better. There is not even research showing that PISA covers enough to be representative of the school subjects involved or the general knowledge-base. PISA items are based on the practical reasoning of its researchers and on pre-tests of what works in most or all settings — and not on systematic research on current or future knowledge structures and needs. (Hopmann, 2008, p. 438).

In other words, the claim was just a fantasy, an illusion, entirely made up by the PISA team. But PISA keeps repeating its assertion that measures skills needed for the future. The strategy worked. PISA successfully convinced people through repetition…

Although PISA claims that it does not assess according to national curricula or school knowledge, its results have been interpreted as a valid measure of the quality of educational systems. But the view of education promoted by PISA is a distorted and extremely narrow one (Berliner, 2011; Sjøberg, 2015; Uljens, 2007). PISA treats economic growth and competitiveness as the sole purpose of education. Thus it only assesses subjects — reading, math, science, financial literacy, and problem solving — that are generally viewed as important for boosting competitiveness in the global economy driven by science and technology. PISA shows little interest in other subjects that have occupied the curricula of many countries such as the humanities, arts and music, physical education, social sciences, world languages, history, and geography (Sjøberg, 2015).

While preparing children for economic participation is certainly part of the responsibility of educational institutions, it cannot and should not be the only responsibility (Labaree, 1997; Sjøberg, 2015; Zhao, 2014, 2016). The purpose of education in many countries includes a lot more than preparing economic beings. Citizenship, solidarity, equity, curiosity and engagement, compassion, empathy, curiosity, cultural values, physical and mental health, and many others are some of the frequently mentioned purposes in national education goal states. But these aspects of purpose of education “are often forgotten or ignored when discussions about the quality of the school is based on PISA scores and rankings” (Sjøberg, 2015, p. 113).

Zhao presents a devastating critique of the validity of PISA. It is a must read.