I recently spoke at a meeting in Bogota, Columbia, sponsored by SENA which is an organization that promotes technical training that leads to useful employment. I had spoken there before and was happy to return since places like SENA are important in the battle against the idea that all students must have an “academic” education.
But, I soon discovered, that Columbia was in an educational existential crisis because they had scored last in the PISA tests. Most Americans have never heard of PISA tests but the rest of the world has. There is a weird competition going on between countries about success at PISA.
Here, courtesy of Wikipedia are the 2012 rankings (and scores) in mathematics:
Hong Kong, China
My reaction to tests is one of contempt. Why do countries willingly engage in this competition? Why is testing in any way relevant to real education for life? We all assume it is. My reaction to tests as a kid was to simply to not care about them. But in those days we weren’t terrorizing kids, parents and teachers about them.
Yesterday an article appeared about Sweden (I tweeted it) saying their schools were a mess because they had low PISA scores. The acknowledged winner in PISA is Finland which is just a little odd because a check of the scores shows that they are not the winners. I could care less about this game but Colombia was so upset about it that they invited two representatives from Finland to this meeting as well, of course, as well as a representative from China, the country that is actually winning. The World Cup was going on while this meeting was going on, and one couldn't help but notice the analogy between them.
To get a better perspective I have selected one question from the PISA sample tests available on line so that we can know what we are talking about here. Here they are, one reading question, one math question, and one science question. PISA scores do all three (even though I only showed math rankings above.):
Read the text and answer the questions which follow.
IN POOR TASTE
from Arnold Jago
Did you know that in 1996 we spent almost the same amount on chocolate as our Government spent on overseas aid to help the poor?
Could there be something wrong with our priorities?
What are you going to do about it?
Source: The Age Tuesday 1 April 1997
Arnold Jago's aim in the letter is to provoke
A result of global warming is that the ice of some glaciers is melting. Twelve years after the ice disappears, tiny plants, called lichen, start to grow on the rocks.
Each lichen grows approximately in the shape of a circle.
The relationship between the diameter of this circle and the age of the lichen can be approximated with the formula:
where d represents the diameter of the lichen in millimetres, and t represents the number of years after the ice has disappeared.
Ann measured the diameter of some lichen and found it was 35 millimetres.
How many years ago did the ice disappear at this spot?
Show your calculation.
A bus is driving along a straight stretch of road. The bus driver, named Ray, has a cup of water resting on the dashboard:
Suddenly Ray has to slam on the brakes.
Ray's bus is, like most buses, powered by a petrol engine. These buses contribute to environmental pollution.
Some cities have trolley buses: they are powered by an electric engine. The voltage needed for such an electric engine is provided by overhead lines (like electric trains). The electricity is supplied by a power station using fossil fuels.
Supporters for the use of trolley buses in a city say that these buses don't contribute to environmental pollution.
Are these supporters right? Explain your answer.
My main reaction to these test questions is “I don’t care” which would have been my reaction as a kid as well. It is easy to see why countries like Colombia do poorly on them. (Peru is actually last on all three sections in the 2012 Wikipedia article.) The questions are about issues (with a strong environmental bias in every question) that might not be on the mind of your average Peruvian or Colombian. These are countries with populations often tucked away far from the major cities that have difficulty getting any real education out to the provinces. These are also countries whose issues should be more focussed on better health, more jobs, and a lot less concerned with preparing kids for a university.
But getting a more realistic focus for schools away from academics and the obsession about college admittance gets more difficult with tests like PISA getting all the schools’ attention.
The Finland people at this meeting admitted that it was much easier doing well at the PISA test when you had a very small and homogeneous country. Still the Colombians wanted desperately to learn from the Finns who really had nothing relevant to tell them.
Testing has become a major industry and Pearson is always lurking ready to make more money on test prep and grading tests, not to mention making them. And, yes, Pearson was at this meeting as well. When I said I would skip what Pearson had to say because they were evil, I got a hearty round of applause.
We really need to stop this testing obsession and get on with letting kids try out things that appeal to them and help them get good at them. Every student needn’t learn the same stuff stuff. Kids have different interests. The best thing we can do for kids is to help them explore what fascinates them. But with PISA lurking we can’t let that happen. Losing the World Cup (in testing) is a horrible possibility apparently.