International tests and rankings: lights and shades

External evaluation, accountability, educational standards … are terms that we are listening for some years in the educational world. In some countries, like the United States, a teacher evaluation system based on performance of students has been implemented. Toward that trend seems we are walking in Spain. Where it is considered that the result of students in different test represents the quality of the whole educational system.

Evaluation is a key aspect of the education system, we would not like to be misunderstanding, but like everything, there are ways to understand what is the assessment, evaluation as a concept is more than testing or examination. Hazelkorn indicated in this interview, than when we talk about tests and rankings we are running the risk that evaluation methods end up being summarized in quantitative terms, when education is a qualitative matter.

Spain currently participates in the following tests:

  • PISA: The Programme for International Student Assessment Prepared by the OECD. Develop the assessment to students 15 years-old in the areas of reading, mathematics and science. He is the best known for its dissemination in different media.
  • TIMSS: The study of trends in mathematics and science students in 3rd and 4th of ESO (high school) Although it is also applying to Primary. It is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Spain has participated in 2003 and 2011.
  • PIRLS: The International Study Progress in reading comprehension for the evaluation of educational performance. Spain has participated in 2006 and 2011.
  • EECL: involves the assessment in English as a first language (or French as a second) for the students of 4th of ESO. Promoted by the European Union.
  • TALIS: International Study of Teaching and Learning. Promoted by the OECD aims to contribute to the development of international indicators to advise on education policy regarding teachers and schools.

All these tests provide interesting data that we can use in the educational world, however, we must be careful how we face these assessments. They are always interesting when they have been used properly, but they cannot be a justification for assessing the performance of a teacher or the quality of an educational system altogether, because, among other reasons:
They do not usually attend the environment and context of each country. Not in terms of number of people,or level of school integration, or how the educational curriculum is organized.
Evaluating the same areas, countries are in very different positions depending on the assessment test we are talking to, so the results are questionable.
Tests focus on a few areas but forget other fundamental aspects of education (and usually forget the humanities subjects).
A standardized test will have difficulty of assessing competencies. If a student gives a creative response to a question may be poorly rated.

The truth is that, this trendy test is not new. In the history of evaluation in education, called the stage of efficiency or test, Garcia Sanz (2003) describes that, between 1900 and 1930, there is a step in which the use of systematized test with objective tools used to determining the quality of teaching. Other authors call this period “the pre-Tylerian period”, to define a trend that came from the United States, which focused on the quality of education is focused exclusively on the measurement. Mestres (2009) specifies that in the period pre-Tylerian “there are trends in evaluation based in external assesstmen previously decided”. These stages were overtaken by more qualitative models who understood that the learning process was more comprehensive and students could be assessed using other indicators.

Therefore, these tests may provide some lights (how we are in different areas, what we should improve, etc.) but they also have many shades, not related to the reports themselves, but rather in terms of how which are being used, in a way that remember past periods mentioned above.

In 2006, a group of experts produced a report entitled “PISA according to PISA”. They consider that this test do not pay attention to the socio-cultural and economic development of each country when conducting evaluations (or the educational-curricular), so, the comparison between countries makes no sense.

In conclusion, justify certain changes from the results of standardized tests is dangerous. Specially because we will end instructing teachers to help students to learn how to answer PISA correctly, with the risk of reducing the school year to learning about how to resolve an exam. These tests are interesting, but they should not have the last word, especially if we are talking about important changes in the educational process. It is necessary to address the quality of the education system considering other perspectives related to the quality and evaluation.

García Sanz, M. P. (2003). The evaluation of programs in the educational intervention. Murcia: Diego Marin.

Mestres, J. (2009). Evaluation of schools. UOC.

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