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.