From the Principal's Office: Do PISA Scores Really Mean Anything? Not Much!

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Do PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) scores really matter? One would think so, because every time the latest round of scores are revealed, there’s a barage of “Sputnik-like” declarations of educational doom and gloom within the United States, all reminscent of when the Soviets launched the first satelite into orbit. Just like it did then, each time these scores come out, the declarations of“educational third world country” status is declared anew. The United States’ future economically is seen a bleak, and tales of woe begin. But there are some really good questions to ask about PISA.
If the United States suddenly vaults into first place in the PISA rankings will our country suddenly experience full employment and economic prosperity for all?

Will American businesses suddenly find all those “mythical-but-can’t-find-qualified workers?

Do PISA rankings by country really mean anything?

I would say “No” to all these questions. The United States’ “weak” rankings in PISA scores tell us absolutely nothing helpful nor does it indicate all the gloom and doom that policymakers public policy wonks like Arne Duncan have claimed in recent years.

Having a number one ranking in PISA scores is not a ticket to the economic promise land. Nor does it mean that we should take up the short-sighted view that our education system’s purpose—from kindergarter to higher education— is to feed the “human capital” machine for corporations. Sure, we want out students to be employable, but making sure they score high on an international test won’t do that. That’s short-sighted thinking. Education should never be about preparing students for the factory sitting down the street; it should be about preparing students so that they can learn and adapt for jobs their entire lives. It is simply short-sighted to see education as worker-training program. We need to train our students to be able to learn for a lifetime, be creative, be critical thinkers, and adapt to whatever comes their way. The jobs down the street will probably move to another country in a few years any way.

Using PISA data, or any standardized test data such as SAT as a scare-tactic and propaganda tool is a moral problem. Those who do that, are like the barkers selling a special elixir guaranteed to fix what ails. They should have the same credibility as snake oil salesmen. It is simply policymakers pushing their own brand of reform with the cry of “wolf.” Sure, our schools can always improve. We can teach our students more effectively. But, this clarion call of doom and gloom every time a round of PISAscores or any standardized test scores needs to met with skepticism if not just ignored.

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J. Robinson has decades of experience as a K12 Principal, Teacher, and Technology Advocate. Read more at The 21st Century Principal.