School test

The power and politics of international assessments

The power and politics of international assessments.  

By Sotiria Grek, University of Edinburgh.

International education assessments have become the lifeblood of education governance in Europe and globally. But do we know enough about how education systems are measured against one another and the effects this measuring produces? Operating as a new form of global education governance, international assessments create a powerful comparative spectacle focused on the performance and ‘effectiveness’ of education systems around the world; this spectacle is now not only including the global rich but also those countries which are often pejoratively described as ‘developing’. Despite international assessments’ dominance and ever-pervasiveness into the logic and planning of education, there are still many areas of critique and complexity: the ways these studies are organised and delivered; the impacts they have through decontextualizing education and quantifying some aspects of it (but not others); the effects they have on what is considered worthy of teaching and knowing; and most importantly, the interlinkages that are silently yet powerfully made through commensurating education with the application of similar policy instruments that measure the economy, the labour market, even health, migration, international development; the list can go on.

Much attention has been given to the OECD Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA). But why and how has PISA become such a powerful force in education policy-making? To use a metaphor from the medical sciences, PISA took an apparently rapidly worsening patient (according to the diagnosis of the OECD) – education in Europe – and supplied it with a life-saving, and life-changing, transplant. All the essential parts were already there: an education industry; numerous national experts and statisticians; the believers in linking education with the labour market, as well as its critics; and the indicators that the OECD had already been preparing since the 1970s, as well as other international studies that had prepared the field: the IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the previous OECD International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and Adult Literacy and Life Skills Survey (ALL) studies. In addition, from a more European point of view, a soft governing tool (with a hard agenda!), the Open Method of Coordination, was also ready to be launched and change the European education policy landscape for good. PISA became the heart that breathed life into this previously disparate body. This heart was beating the beat of comparison and competition, connecting the parts into a single entity, itself represented by the OECD rating and ranking tables. The PISA charts became the totemic representations of the new governing regime, excluding caveats or any awkward knowledge in order to offer policy makers what they are often after – fast-selling policy solutions.

This is the beginnings of a story that has been eloquently described and analysed by a number of academics in the field. The Laboratory of International Assessments was set up to investigate ‘chapter 2’ of this story and ask; now that international assessments are with us (and seem to be with us to stay), what are their long-term effects on education governance in Europe and globally? What do they mean for the knowledge and policy relationship and what do they suggest about the changing politics of education policy in the 21st century? How do policy makers use them (if they do)? Can participation in their organisation and management be more open and democratic or is it that their statistical complexity renders them legible only to the very few?

These and many other questions will be discussed over the next couple of years in the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) seminar series on ‘The Potentials, Politics and Practices of International Education Assessments’.


Image Credit: ‘The Test’- a painting by Yvette Wohn. Imaged used with permission from the artist.

1 Comment

  • Lab Team

    The OECD as an important knowledge producer with PISA

    Sotiria Grek asked the question “why and how has PISA become such a powerful force in education policy-making?” and pointed to some factors that contributed to the rise of a new governing regime with international student assessments. One aspect, which I would like to highlight is, that the OECD acts as an important knowledge producer with PISA, who not only co-ordinate the assessment but also treats and analyses the data and draws policy-related conclusions on this basis. Due to its high output rate of PISA products, its global outreach and the widespread use of its products in science, politics and the media, the OECD is an important actor in shaping the interpretation and use of PISA data and results.
    Over the assessment cycles the OECD Directorate for Education strengthened the link of PISA to policy advice by new forms of data analysis and adopted a more public oriented data communication with the aim of raising the relevance of the assessment and its results in politics, educational practice and society. The mostly descriptive presentation of results in the initial reports of the first assessment cycles was supplemented by a more in-depth secondary analysis and reference making to countries’ experiences and reform trajectories that are intended to serve as “best practices” examples to other countries. According to OECD experts this follows from a growing demand for policy advice on the basis of PISA data from countries and the availability of more and historical data, as the PISA assessment has already had several cycles which would allow an in-depth use of PISA data.

    The OECD Directorate for Education had strengthened and extended its media outreach in recent years. Since PISA 2009 it shows more presence in the social media — it tweets, blogs and twitters through various channels and seems to be quite successful in reaching out to a larger public and various stakeholder groups, among parents, teachers and students, but also people from the economy. The OECD Directorate for Education produces more diverse and accessible materials, reaching from overview brochures and other shorter pieces of work summarising main results to online tools allowing the public discover PISA results themselves. For instance, in the last assessment cycles, the OECD did not only publish the initial reports (reports that are published in the following year of the data collection simultaneously with the release date of PISA data), but produced an overview brochure that summarises the main results of the four volumes of the initial reports on about 40 pages. Moreover, so-called “country notes” for a considerable number of PISA participating countries were prepared which should serve the respective national media and national stakeholder groups that are particularly interested in how their country is doing compared to others. The “PISA in Focus Series” was introduced in 2011 consisting of short policy-oriented notes which present monthly a different PISA topic.
    These developments in the Directorate for Education increase OECD’s visibility in society, politics and the media and tie PISA data more closely to educational policy, which may give part of an explanation to the rise of a new governing regime with international assessments, notably PISA.

    Simone Bloem, Université Paris Descartes/University of Bamberg
    This comment is based on Simone’s thesis on OECD’s knowledge production with PISA.

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