What drives participation in international educational assessments?

By Camilla Addey.

It is widely argued that internationally comparable data is needed to inform policy processes and benchmark educational progress, but scholarly research in International Assessment Studies suggests that countries participate for reasons that go well beyond accountability and policy.  The rationales for participation will be discussed in a group discussion – ‘Why do countries participate in international education assessments?’ – to be held at the Association for Educational Assessment annual conference in Glasgow in November 2015.

Academic scholars have mixed views about the kinds of reasons which lead countries participate international educational assessments. Some argue that they are driven or coerced to participate because of international pressure. Others argue that the pressures and opportunities are more domestic, originating in national politics and ambitions.

Some have questioned why lower and middle income countries decide to join international assessments given the questionable traction and significance that international assessment data may have in such contexts (Bloem 2013). Lockheed (2013) has argued that high-income countries take part in international assessments to look inside their own system through comparison with other educational systems in order to improve their quality. Low and middle income countries, she argues, are ‘encouraged by others to participate in international assessments, ostensibly so that the developing countries might improve their own national assessments, use assessments for monitoring and accountability purposes as their education systems became more decentralized, and place the results of their education systems on a common, international scale’ (2013: 169).

Coercion strategies and national politics

Lockheed (2013) suggests that participation is a requirement for lower and middle income countries which wish to access foreign aid and to monitor its effectiveness. This supports Chung’s (2010) argument that lower and middle-income countries are forced to join, and Kamens (2013), who argues that low-income countries join international assessments as they are ‘under the gun to establish some kind of accountability of their educational systems’ (2013: 120). But there are many other plausible reasons why countries might be motivated to participate.

Grek (2009) suggests that countries join to measure the discrepancy between themselves and the OECD countries to evaluate how far they need to go to catch up in terms of skills, but also that countries want to be seen to be taking part and be put on the map. Wiseman (2013) suggests that joining international assessments provides countries with a form of legitimacy and credibility, a soft power in the global community, by being part of a group of countries which value public education.

Addey’s (2015) empirical research supports this view by suggesting countries participate as a global ritual of belonging. Kamens has argued that eastern European, Central Asian and North African Arab and Middle Eastern countries participated in international assessments for the ‘prestige of competing and benchmarking themselves against the exclusive club of rich countries’ (2013: 124), and that international assessments ‘make ministers and ministries look good at international conferences and events. They and their countries get good reputations for actively pursuing modern values’ (2013: 128) – reinforcing the theory that obtaining ‘bad’ results are better than not participating at all. A similar view is offered by Sellar and Lingard (2013) who have suggested international assessments have a self-perpetuating nature: the greater number of countries participating, the greater the interest of other countries to join subsequent rounds.

One of the reasons why we should ask these questions of motivation, is the significance of the alternative – countries who might decide not to participate for various reasons. Knowing why countries participate offers some insights into the potential benefits of participation, and the risk of negatives outcomes that are associated with unclear rationales for participation.

The group discussion at the Association of Educational Assessment (Europe) conference in Glasgow will be led by Dr Camilla Addey (Humboldt University), Dr Sam Sellar (University of Queensland), Dr Rie Kijima (Stanford Graduate School of Education), Dr Thierry Rocher (French Ministry of Education), Dr David Kamens (Northern Illinois University), and Dr Jenifer Chung (St Mary’s University).  The discussion group will be an opportunity for participants to continue these discussions, to better understand the rationales that drive countries to participate in international assessments and how participation in international assessments could support the pursuit of more equitable educational opportunities.


Dr Camilla Addey is associate researcher at the University of East Anglia (though moving to Humboldt University soon) and director of the Laboratory of International Assessment Studies.

Photo credit. PISA,  OECD


Blog references

Addey, C. (2015). Participating in international literacy assessments in Lao PDR and Mongolia: a global ritual of belonging. In, Literacy as Numbers: researching the politics and practices of international literacy assessment. M. Hamilton, B. Maddox and C. Addey. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bloem, S. (2013). PISA in Low and Middle Income Countries. Paris: OECD Publishing.

Chung, J. H. (2010). Finland, PISA, and the Implications of International Achievement Studies on Education Policy. The Impact of International Achievement Studies on National Education Policymaking. A. W. Wiseman. Bingley, UK, Emerald Group Publishing, Ltd. 13: 267 – 294.

Grek, S. (2009). “Governing by numbers: the PISA ‘effect’ in Europe.” Journal of Education Policy 24(1): 23-37.

Kamens, D. H. (2013). Globalization and the Emergence of an Audit Culture: PISA and the Search for “Best Practices” and Magic Bullets. PISA, Power, and Policy the emergence of global educational governance. H. D. Meyer and A. Benavot. Wallingford/GB, Symposium Books.

Lockheed, M. (2013). Causes and Consequences of International Large-Scale Assessments in Developing Countries. PISA, Power, and Policy the emergence of global educational governance. H. D. Meyer and A. Benavot. Wallingford/GB, Symposium Books.

Sellar, S. and B. Lingard (2013). PISA and the Expanding Role of the OECD in Global Education Governance. PISA, Power, and Policy the emergence of global educational governance. H. D. Meyer and A. Benavot. Wallingford/GB, Symposium Books.

Wiseman, A. (2013). Policy Responses to Pisa in Comparative Perspective. PISA, Power, and Policy the emergence of global educational governance. H. D. Meyer and A. Benavot. Wallingford/GB, Symposium Books.