Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 28 December 2014

PISA scores have taught us nothing about education

Education Minister John O'Dowd
Education Minister John O'Dowd

As someone who believes that Northern Ireland has world-class schools and teachers, I find the reactions of politicians, 'educational experts' and sections of the media to the recent PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) league tables extremely worrying.

There are some who seem to grasp every opportunity to undermine the quality of our post-primary schools, in particular.

Since this denigration of our schools is surely damaging to efforts to promote Northern Ireland to inward investors, one would hope that these criticisms are well-founded. They're not. In fact, they're nonsense.

Northern Ireland readers will be surprised to learn from a series of articles published in the Times Educational Supplement in July of this year that "a large proportion of the PISA rankings are not based on actual student performance, but on random numbers".

Furthermore, "most people don't know that half of the students taking part in PISA [2006] do not respond to any reading items at all. Despite that, PISA assigns reading scores to these children."

These revelations alone should give pause to those who ascribe any measure of credibility to PISA ranks.

Professor Svend Kreiner, a statistician from the University of Copenhagen, who has carried out a detailed investigation of PISA, offered the following analysis: "the best we can say about PISA rankings is that they are useless".

The distinguished British mathematician, Tony Gardner, of Birmingham University, has referred to PISA output as "snake oil".

In short, it's not Northern Ireland's post-primary schools which are at fault; it's PISA itself. PISA rankings can tell us nothing of value about our education system.

The Department of Education recently commissioned a very expensive Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) survey of our schools.

John O'Dowd should be demanding that the OECD return our money and apologise for the reputational damage PISA does to our schools.

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