“It is what it is.” That was my first reaction to the PISA 2012 results released last week (Full Canadian Results). PISA (The Programme for International Student Assessment) is designed to provide indicators of the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students across the world (please see here for more backgrounder information on PISA). While the assessment tool does measure a limited set of skills, there is much PISA doesn’t measure. And, true, PISA continues to tilt toward 20th century over 21st century skills, but it is still the world’s best, widely used assessment tool on how we are doing in education and on providing guidance for education improvement.
Although much attention is given to the ranking part of the tests, as Yong Zhao points out, even those at the top are wondering about their success:
While the East Asian systems may enjoy being at the top of international tests, they are not happy at all with the outcomes of their education. They have recognized the damages of their education for a long time and have taken actions to reform their systems. Recently, the Chinese government again issued orders to lessen student academic burden by reducing standardized tests and written homework in primary schools. The Singaporeans have been working on reforming its curriculum and examination systems. The Koreans are working on implementing a “free semester” for the secondary students. Eastern Asian parents are willing and working hard to spend their life’s savings finding spots outside these “best” education systems. Thus international schools, schools that follow the less successful Western education model, have been in high demand and continue to grow in East Asia. Tens of thousands of Chinese and Korean parents send their children to study in Australia, the U.K., Canada, and the U.S. It is no exaggeration to say that the majority of the parents in China would send their children to an American school instead of keeping them in the “best performing” Chinese system, if they had the choice.
But, if one does want to buy into the assessment, we need to do more than use the results to search for our flaws or accentuate our ideologies. It has been disappointing and discouraging to see some of the commentary in British Columbia, and across the country in response to the results. I suspect most who have commented (for example) on the need to “focus on the basics” to raise scores haven’t looked at the problem-solving questions that PISA asks (not very back-to-basics questions).
So, while acknowledging the limits of using the nation “rankings”, let me share some of the insights I have gleaned from my first look at the results and some stories you may have not seen:
1) British Columbia was the highest performing English-speaking jurisdiction in the world
British Columbia is not only the highest performing province in Canada, but ahead of all other English-speaking participating nations including Australia, United States, United Kingdom, and New Zealand (to name a few). If you look at countries in general, Canada would be first in this category.
2) British Columbia was the highest performing multicultural jurisdiction in the world
One characteristic that other countries at the top of the charts do not share with British Columbia and Canada is its diversity. In language and cultural diversity, BC and Canada stand out as the highest performing on the assessments.
3) British Columbia was the highest-performing province in Canada in science and reading and second to Quebec in Math
British Columbia has typically been among the strongest performing provinces in each area (typically with Alberta, Ontario and Quebec). The most recent results show BC was first in science, ahead of Alberta and Ontario. Reading on, the same three provinces performed at the top level in Canada, and again, all near the top of the International charts. In math, Quebec led the way with BC, Alberta and Ontario following. It is worth noting, of those who completed the digital math assessment, BC was the highest performing province (more on digital below).
4) There was both excellence and equity in British Columbia’s results
The difference between the high and low achievers in BC (those between the 90th and 10th percentile) is lower than in all of Canada, and the OECD, in all three disciplines. The gap is also lower than that in Finland (often cited for its high level of achievement and equity) in both Reading and Science.
5) British Columbia’s results have been steady for the last decade
In absolute terms, since 2006, British Columbia’s results have been fairly steady. It is true that in Mathematics in particular, in relative terms BC (and all of Canada) has declined — in part due to more countries participating, and also because of the improvements in several Asian countries.
And then beyond these headlines, there is other interesting data:
There is a lot to analyze and much more that will come out from the OECD over the next year. One piece of information that was particularly interesting in the first report was how much less the gender gap was in reading when the test was completed on a computer. For those using print reading, the BC gap in scores (in favour of girls) was 26 points, but when completed digitally, the gap was only 14 points. Across Canada there was similar data indicating a shrinking of the gender gap when the reading was digital. This is incredibly interesting given the increase in digital print we currently encounter — and just one of the many pieces of data that is worth taking the time to better understand.
It is also a given that there are many ways in which our system can improve, and those who make the case for more services, new programs and innovative approaches are right. And, yes, socio-economics and issues like poverty matter. It is also true that BC has an amazing education system. It is interesting to see what a more positive view the British seem to have of our results in Canada — having such a quality teaching force in BC is our huge advantage.
Now, let’s get past the rankings part and focus on the learning part — what we can learn from others about how we can improve the experiences for our students both locally and globally. And, let’s not spend our time thinking about how we can get better at the tests, but instead focus our attention and system on how it can help our kids for their world today and for tomorrow.
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