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PISA Results Incoming: A Closer Look at Their Significance and Limitations

November 1st, 2023

This week at Infuse we have been discussing the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA for short.

PISA is an international assessment of reading, mathematics and science literacy that offers a means to benchmark Australian student performance against other countries. Every three years, a sample of 15-year-old Australian students participate in PISA, and every time the PISA results are released there is a swell of media attention.

The latest round of PISA results are due out soon – sometime before the end of the year.

There are two reasons why PISA results generate media attention. 

First, they provide comparative country rankings that offer a (imperfect) means to assess the quality of learning and teaching in Australian schools relative to that of other high and middle-income countries. 

Second, Australia tends to underperform. 

Across all three assessment areas, Australia’s mean performance score has decreased from the first PISA cycle, in 2000, and this has resulted in an associated drop within the rankings. In 2018, we still scored just above the OECD average for reading and scientific literacy (and on average for mathematical literacy), but… as an examiner might comment… ‘there is much room for improvement.’ 

In mathematics, for example, Australia’s 2018 performance was on average 100 points lower than China, which is the equivalent of more than 3.5 years of schooling! In scientific literacy we scored lower than 12 countries and more than 3 years of schooling behind China, while in reading literacy we scored 52 points lower than China (around 1.5 years of schooling), and below 9 other OECD countries. 

The reasons for our declining rankings are multifaceted, but not unknown. Funding needs, teacher workloads, and the undervalued status of the teaching profession are just three points of concern. While PISA rankings might be an opportunity for the media to announce a ‘wake up call,’ those working in our schools are already wide awake.

Having said that, we also need to be careful about PISA narratives of doom. Yes, there are problems to be addressed in our education systems, but the highest performing countries in the PISA rankings – China, Singapore, Macao, Hong Kong, Estonia, Canada, and Finland – also face systemic educational challenges. Standardised testing is a blunt instrument for measuring educational performance.

This is something we understand well at Infuse. 

Reading, mathematics, and science literacy matter, but so does social and emotional learning, student wellbeing, and curiosity. So much of what is important when it comes to what students need in order to be successful 21st Century learners is not captured by the standard PISA metrics. It is for this reason that we were so pleased to see PISA 2018 include a focus on ‘global competence’: “students’ capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development” – and  it is for this reason that we will remain steadfast in our work, regardless of the results of the 2023 rankings. 

Our job is to make learning more fun and meaningful, and to provide learning pathways for more inclusive and sustainable futures. We look forward to continuing to work with all our partners to achieve these endeavours. 

Dr. Kearrin Sims
Infuse Director of Impact 

Learn more: https://www.oecd.org/pisa/aboutpisa/