Assessment on an international stage

International perspectives on student assessment can help interpret shifts in educational achievement at a national level. Andreas Schleicher, head of indicators and analysis at the OECD’s directorate of education, explains.

Educators are often faced with a dilemma: if the percentage of students obtaining good school marks increases, some will claim that the school system has improved. Others will claim that standards must have been lowered, and behind the suspicion that better results reflect lowered standards is often a belief that overall performance in education cannot be raised.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) allows us to frame those perceptions in a wider perspective, by allowing schools and education systems to look at themselves in the mirror of the performance of schools and education systems in other countries. In a global economy, where the yardstick for educational improvement is no longer national standards alone but increasingly the best performing education systems internationally, that perspective is increasingly important.

But the growing interest in PISA derives from several considerations. By revealing what is possible in education in terms of the achievement demonstrated in the countries with the highest performance levels, PISA has enhanced the quality of existing policies but also created debate about the paradigms and beliefs underlying existing policies. Secondly, while PISA alone cannot identify cause-and-effect relationships between inputs, processes and educational outcomes, it sheds light on key features in which education systems show similarities and differences, and makes those key features visible for educators, policy makers and the general public. In some countries, PISA is also used to set policy targets in terms of measurable goals achieved by other systems, and to identify policy levers and establish trajectories for reform. And finally, PISA can assist with gauging the pace of educational progress, through assessing to what extent achievement gains observed nationally are in line with achievement gains observed elsewhere.

The challenge for countries is to integrate national and international perspectives on educational performance such that international benchmarks can be interpreted in meaningful ways in terms of national or local norms. Countries have approached this in different ways. Some have directly linked their national assessments with PISA, by embedding PISA tasks into national assessments or the other way round. Others have undertaken curriculum matching studies that establish an association between national standards and the PISA assessment frameworks.

The future may lie in multi-layered assessment systems that extend from classrooms to schools to regional to national to international levels. Assessments derived from clear instructional goals can provide a window into students’ understanding and the conceptual strategies they use. They can add value to student learning through assessment tasks that involve real-life applications and provide opportunities for students to organise and deepen their understanding through explanation and use of multiple representations of their work. Such assessments generate data that can be acted upon and used to build capacity in teachers, and can become a powerful instrument to improve student learning outcomes.

Andreas Schleicher is Head of Indicators and Analysis at the OECD’s Directorate of Education

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