Looking for Post-PISA Answers? Here’s What Our Obsession With Test Scores Overlooks
The latest PISA scores are out. And for those who have closely followed the international test, which is delivered to 15-year-olds in developed countries every three years, the top-line results won’t offer many surprises.
East Asian countries led the pack when it comes to reading, math and science, topped by China’s handpicked, wealthiest regions. Estonia and Finland, whose education systems are often held in high esteem, also placed high.
And the Americans? U.S. students placed in the middle of the pack, scoring slightly above average on reading and science and a little below in math. Compared to the previous test in 2015, the scores stayed flat.
Stagnant scores breed plenty of hand-wringing and questions over the value of efforts like Common Core and investments in education reform and technology. There is just cause for concern: According to the National Center for Education Statistics, which administered the PISA test in the U.S., the bottom 10th percentile of students fell further behind, and the gap between them and top performers widened.
In the latest edition, 600,000 students in 79 education systems across the world took the two-hour PISA exam. In the U.S., that included 4,800 students from 215 schools. Detailed results are shared across six volumes that are being published this year and next.
Where there are rankings, there is a natural tendency to compare, contrast and compete. And to seek remedies. But Andreas Schelicher, director of education and skills at the OECD—the Paris-based organization behind PISA—cautions against knee jerk reactions. “The temptation is always to look for a quick solution, to say, ‘Oh, that seems to be working. Let’s just copy and paste it.’”
The latest results, he adds, offers an opportunity to “step back and see how your local education system fares in a broader perspective—both its strengths and weaknesses.” And it’s equally important to understand how demographics and socioeconomic conditions unique to each country make certain approaches more feasible to replicate than others.
To reinforce the importance of seeing the bigger picture, he adds: “Often we understand our own language better by learning a foreign language.” (Given how Americans are known to be monolingual, that’s perhaps a telling, if unintended, metaphor for our stagnant performance.)
Adopting the Right Mindset
While top-line performance results dominate headlines and headspace, the report also provides additional insights into the nonacademic factors that shape education and students’ wellbeing. And it’s these findings that Schleicher says can be more helpful for policymakers and reformers as they think about ways to improve.
For one, believing in a growth mindset, or the idea that intelligence is not fixed, but rather malleable and can be improved with effort, leads to improved outcomes, according to the 2018 results. In a summary of the results, Schleicher wrote that “students who disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement ‘Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much’ scored 32 points higher in reading than students who agreed or strongly agreed.”
Those results are similar to recent findings published by Carol Dweck, a Stanford education professor who is often credited with making growth mindset a mainstream concept. Ninth graders who took an online growth mindset course reported higher grades that those who didn’t.
On the PISA 2018 exam, the countries where the most students disagreed with that statement hail from Europe (led by Estonia, Denmark and Germany), with the U.S. coming in 10th.
But on a country-level analysis, doing well at reading, math and science doesn’t necessarily correlate with a belief in growth mindset. The mainland Chinese regions, along with Hong Kong and Macau, fared in the middle of the pack. “I don’t really have a good explanation for that,” says Schleicher. “It’s something that we want to study further.”
In addition, he says there’s a “strong relationship growth mindset and resilience” and the data suggests it can boost motivation and reduce fear of failure.
“Growth mindset is a very important thing that makes us active learners, and makes us invest in our personal education,” Schleicher states. “If learning isn’t based on effort and intelligence is predetermined, why would anyone bother?”
The test also gauged students’ responses on other indicators that reflect the quality of their school environment, including bullying, sense of belonging and parental support. These subjective, often intangible feelings also factor into academic wellbeing.
It’s “absolutely fascinating” to see the relationship between teachers’ enthusiasm, students’ social-emotional wellbeing and their learning outcomes, Schleicher notes. As one example, he noted in his summary report that “in most countries and economies, students scored higher in reading when they perceived their teachers as more enthusiastic, especially when they said their teachers were interested in the subject.”
In other words, happy teachers lead to better results. That’s hardly a surprising revelation, says Scheleicher. But professional development support is one thing that can sometimes be overlooked by policymakers when so much of the focus is on test scores.
“There is a tendency to reduce teaching to the delivery of instruction and content,” he says. “We may have underestimated the bigger social role that teachers play in creating the environments that also shape learning outcomes.”