Don’t miss the point of the PISA

A four letter acronym is being bandied about in the educational sphere: PISA.

The Programme for International Student Assessment is a study in the form of a test, meant to assess the academic levels of 15 year olds worldwide in math, science, and reading. The most recent test results came in recently, and has promptly been used to create a ranked list of education systems in different countries.

The PISA score rankings take something as complex and multi-faceted as a country’s education system and “grade” the systems based on a single test. Achievement tests only reflect one small part of a wide array of skills necessary in school, in the job force, and in life.

In other words, lower than expected scores by American 15-year-olds does not mean that our nation is failing at educating our youth. High scoring countries do not necessarily represent a bar that must be reached. Many articles reporting on the PISA have been quick to point out that certain states did better than others on the test, and even that the lowest scoring countries house the happiest students. The PISA scores are being simplified too far, causing us to miss the finer details.

Single tests like the SAT or the GMAT are important, and a lot of stress is placed on them. But along with a test score, many prestigious colleges also want to see an essay, a “resume” of what you’ve accomplished, and even an interview. We’re so intent on ranking where we stand compared to others, that we forget that one test is not enough to get a full picture of how a country is doing academically.

The PISA is still an important resource. It offers insight into certain weaknesses and strengths in education systems across the world. We should acknowledge these uncovered weaknesses and determine how or whether to approach them. The PISA scores are simply another data point. It behooves us to understand where the data came from and how it was collected (the dysfunction inherent in the data) before we can determine how much relevance it has for us.


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