Do you still remember how you felt when you got your Abitur? I bet one of the emotions was pride. Finally, after all these years we made it and in a very good way that is. So pride definitely seems justified. But is it really? How do we know if we can really be proud of our education? Easy, we compare and compete with other countries. The known way to check where you are standing is through the PISA test. PISA does not stand for the city, no, it stands for: Program for International Student Assessment.
The first PISA test took place in 2000 and was repeated every third year since then, so the next test will be held this year. The test focuses on the fields of reading, maths and science, where there is always one field with a higher importance.
The participating countries are required to test at least 5000 students from the age of 15 and 3 months till age 16 and 2 months ( I wonder who came up with that logic) whereas it doesn’t matter in which class these students are.
Especially in Germany, everyone was shocked by the bad first results. Especially the reading part seemed to overstrain the students, the maths and science results were somewhere in the middle. This led to a lot of discussion on what could and has to be done in our education system.
But is the PISA test really the right way to compare the educational level of students? For example, the test does include background information of the participants, but how and how much this counts for in the end nobody knows. There is only a statistic included, which shows that students with a migration back ground achieve lower scores, but it doesn’t provide any justification. Also, I have never heard of anyone being included in the PISA test, so I am really curious what students from which schools are included. Apparently, the schools and the students are randomly chosen, but I have never heard of a school near where I lived being chosen. Which seems a little strange when you hear that 250 schools participate.
PISA Test just as incapable as its participants?
This is also what the Munich physicist Joachim Wuttke criticized: he argues that the test samples are not representative. This is the case, because in 7 countries ( including Germany) the tests of students attaining schools for the mentally handicapped. If these tests weren’t included in the end results, Germany would have been on place 12 instead of place 18. Another point he claims is that the participation of the schools in the different countries is to widespread: In the US 68,1% and in Germany 98,8% participate. This gives countries the freedom to leave out non high-performing schools.
Another point that should not be ignored is the one made by Thomas Jahnke from the university of Potsdam: He claims that the test in general is not appropriate to judge the knowledge of students, because it is a huge selling deal for the private companies that build the test. He fears that they only care about the profitability of the product and not about the suitability of the questions for example.
How can you fairly allocate points to questions if you can solve them in many different ways where the solutions severely differ in creativity and complexity? You can’t – that’s what Wolfram Meyerhöfer, also from the university of Potsdam. The way the PISA test allocates points is fairly simple: They divide the questions into different categories: easy, medium, difficult. The more difficult questions a student answers, the higher his score.
Here a little irony for you: The test revealed that a lot of students have big problems reading and understanding texts. However, the expert Joachim Wuttke from the research center in Jülich argues that the language of the test creates a lot of problems: The French maths texts are for example about 12% longer than the English ones, which has a definite influence on the students’ time to perform the tasks. Another aspect are the translations: The people translating the text use the expressions that they like best, but not necessarily the ones established in the countries. This causes more problems for the students to understand the questions.
A never ending story: How to present data?
After all of these problems concerning the test performance, here another big problem: What to do with the results? The people in charge of the test evaluation keep the data safe like it could save all world problems and only release it in form of lists one year after the test was taken. These lists look very easy to understand and direct, but what exactly does “45points in increased learning in one school year” mean? This shows that even simple looking tables can actually be not that simple and used to show the results the makers want to show.
Even with all this flaws, the PISA study has one huge benefit: It woke us up. No matter how biased the results might be, the low scores Germany made are simply unacceptable! And the government knows this, too. They realized that something in our education system has to change. This alone is a huge success. Only how efficient those changes will be is up to discussion.