Should international league tables drive education policy?

Last week it was TIMSS. This week it’s PISA. Report cards on the performance of education systems are everywhere right now.

The PISA results released today (PISA is the Program for International Assessment) tell as similar story to the TIMSS report last week: that Australian students are not performing as well as hoped for in core areas such as mathematics and science. It seems that our students are falling behind.

Education specialists from countries that take part in these international tests pore over the key findings and graphs contained in these reports to see where they sit in what is essentially a collection of international league tables. The countries that do well sing from the rooftops the virtues of their education system; those that don’t do as well, gnash their teeth and look for someone to blame. The media have a field day with it: with lots of numbers and graphs and rankings, what’s not to like?

Should we be worried?

There’s a lot of information in the TIMSS and PISA reports, much of it useful. For example, the PISA data indicates that it is not just subject knowledge that our students are behind in; Australian students are also not showing the capacity to apply the mathematical and scientific knowledge they have in everyday situations. This is essential in a knowledge age.

What isn’t useful when examining reports such as these is placing too much emphasis on ranking countries based on a narrow set of assessment instruments. Using a set of league tables to determine the direction of our nation’s education policy and how billions of precious dollars should be spent into the future is dangerous. Politicians and advocacy groups will also use the information contained in these reports to push their own agenda, or for political point-scoring. This helps no-one.

Numbers and graphs are not sources of truth – they are instruments to help discover it. Rather than simply pledging blind allegiance to a narrow data set – however capably that data has been compiled – we should instead be using it as a starting point for exploring how we can do things better. We need to resist the temptation to take a simplistic view of the findings from the latest TIMSS and PISA reports. Such a view only leads to proposing simplistic solutions that don’t work and waste taxpayers’ money.


3 thoughts on “Should international league tables drive education policy?

  1. Agreed Greg. Your readers might also be interested in other articles about PISA, which can be found on my website ( if they type PISA into the search box. There are some valuable lessons to learn from PISA, but if people are not statistically literate, there are many problems interpreting what it all means.

  2. Agree totally Greg. My only hope is that a man in your position of power that you may influence those in the corridors of power to change direction. Singapore is a marvel more for the fact it’s only resource is its people. They invest in them and no one, even those cerebrally challenged are left behind. Despite the presence of the pressure test in Year 6 that determines the stream each progresses in high school, they nevertheless know it takes more than a limited test score to recognise a global citizen. My wish for Australia is that policy decisions are taken out of the hands of politicians who only ever look at the short term and do not understand the need to develop capable, collaborative and intelligent citizens for the world we now live in.

    What’s more in Australia we as a nation across all class and cultural sectors need to place greater value on school based education like those of other nations who based on TIMMS and PISA are moving from lower status due to the growth through globalisation. My hunch is that we still largely remain the same in Australia despite billions on NAPLAN (napalm) that add nothing to a student’s development. Whereas the poorer nations who are getting a taste for a middle class life are seeing the value in an education.

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