Rimantas Želvys

PISA Phenomenon: The Many Faces of the International Student Assessment

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has become a striking phenomenon of the contemporary educational world. Initiated in 2000 by OECD, currently it includes 65 countries and teritories from all over the world. PISA is the only international education survey to measure the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds, an age at which students in most countries are nearing the end of their compulsory time in school. Subject to severe criticism as well as the source of inspiration for educationalists, policymakers, journalists and other interest groups, PISA plays a significant role in contemporary educational landscape. No matter whether we are supporters or critics of PISA, it‘s difficult to deny the scope of the influence this international project. However, when discussing about PISA, opponents often consider various aspects of this phenomena, therefore the arguments for and agains PISA are directed towards different dimensions of the survey. The aim of the presentation is to identify the multiple aspects, or, speaking metaphorically, faces of PISA, which  carry different messages and are subject to different value judgements by  various interest groups.

  1. PISA as a symbol of globalization. The global education reform movement is gaining momentum and in this respect PISA symbolizes the global trend of seeking for universal standards and common ways of development iof education systems. Global educational space enables making global measurements of national education systems and PISA provides an opportunity for participating countries to become comparable on a global scale.
  2. PISA as manifestation of neoliberal ideology in education. Neoliberal ideology, which directs education towards greater efficiency and accountability, competition and market orientation, is reflected in many educational initiatives of the last decades, and PISA is a typical example of trying to make national educational systems compete. Proponents of neoliberal ideology often refer to PISA when they urge to assess the effectiveness of provision of educational servises.
  3. PISA as a methodological controversy. On one hand, PISA uses sophisticated methods of sampling and statistical analysis, and on the other it often makes you wonder how valid are conclusions which are based on a survey of a two-hour paper-and-pencil testing of students.
  4. PISA as research data base. PISA provides a vast research data base, where researchers can follow the progress of participating nations in literacy, science and maths achieved during the three year period which lasts from one survey to another, compare different countries, regions or educational models. No matter whether we accept the ideological rationale of PISA or not, the data base is by all means a valuable resource for researchers in the field of comparative education.
  5. PISA as benchmarking. PISA has been acknowledged as an official benchmarking tool by the European Commission and member states are urged to follow the target of 15 year-old students achieving a certain level of basic skills in reading, maths and science by 2020. PISA results are also considered as one of the educational indicators for the OECD member states.
  6. PISA as a league table. Perhaps the most familiar face of PISA for the wide public is that of a league table. Without getting much into details, politicians, journalists and authors of popular publications provide information and commentaries about the place the country stands on a list of participating countries in reading, maths and science. Often we can observe public discussions whether the country is leading or laging behind when compared with other nations of the same region or similar level of socio-economic development.
  7. PISA as promotion. Education is not among the most popular topics for mass media, therefore one of the occassions when education is in the focus of everybody‘s attention is the day when PISA results are announced and several following months. PISA results help to maintain public interest in education at keep education on the agenda of national policy at least for some time.
  8. PISA as punishment. PISA results are often use as an argument in order to prove the ineffectiveness of those in charge of national education. Critique is not allways adequate as PISA results are announced several years after the survey was conducted and unsatisfactory results could be the result of wrong policy decisions made by previous political leaders. However, oponents usually use national failure in PISA (and usually it‘s considered a failure, even if the country shows average results) as a strong argument against those who are currently in charge of education.
  9. PISA as business. PISA requires a wide array of different human and material resources and attracts a large number of temporary or permanent employees. For each PISA survey, international contractors (usually made up of testing and assessment agencies) are involved for the design and implementation of the surveys. There are also many consultancy firms which claim to know how to improve PISA results and offer their services for their potential customers.
  10. PISA as policymaking. PISA data is used as a basis for further development of national educational policies. Policy papers often refer to PISA when defining possible trajectories of education reforms. International bodies urge national states to use PISA data for policymaking and making efforts to improve education. For example, the European Commission in its recent Education and Training Monitor for Lithuania refers to PISA results and states that „so far there have been no concrete government initiatives to address either the relatively poor performance in basic skills or gender differences in educational performance“.

Different actors in educational domain should use in a more skillfull and selective way of using the various aspects of PISA survey for achieving their goals and securing their interests. Educational researchers should be more involved in using PISA as a research data base and use all the opportunities it can provide. Those involved in educational policy should analyse the impact of PISA on educational policy decisions and provide guidlines for future policy development. Representatives of mass media should use PISA results as a means of raising public awareness of the importance of education for national development.

Dr. Habil. Rimantas Želvys is a professor and Head of Education Policy Centre at Vilnius University, Lithuania.  He is a former Director of Lithuanian In-Service Teachers‘ Taining Institute and Vice-Rector for Research at Lithuanian University of Educational Sciences. An expert of the European Commission, OECD and the World Bank for the projects on educational development in post-socialist countries. He has published widely on topics of teacher education, national educational reforms, educational leadership and management.