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A hand seen holding a pen.
Dropping the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) this spring is an easy way to lessen the pandemic recovery burden on students and educators. (Shutterstock)

Pause PISA international standardized student testing — it’s been two years of pandemic schooling stress

Students are facing significant psycho-social challenges as they return to their classrooms after two years of uneven pandemic schooling. Should schools be adding unnecessary tests to an overburdened educational system?

Canada’s Council of Ministers of Education (CMEC) seems to think so: Between April 18 and May 27, CMEC will administer the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to a sample of about 30,000 15-year-old students from 1,000 schools in all 10 provinces.

PISA is an international research program from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that compares student performance in mathematics, science and reading.

For the past two decades, every three years, 15-year-old Canadian students have participated in PISA. This year, CMEC continues to champion the benefits of PISA using the familiar refrain “Canadians are concerned about the quality of education provided by schools.”

Timely questions need to be raised in light of the decision to proceed with the administration of PISA across Canada this spring just as students are gaining some sense of schooling normalcy.

For example, the Student Well-Being and Resiliency Study conducted by University of Calgary researchers documents considerable economic hardships and the psycho-social issues facing Calgary students and their families as schools clamour to support their learning.

Who benefits from assessment?

American education researcher Jack Buckley offers one helpful analytical framework for revisiting the purpose of assessment after COVID-19. Buckley contends tests can be categorized into four quadrants: high burden, high value; low burden, high value; high burden, low value; low burden, low value.

A graph shows a quadrant of four squares that represent whether something is low or high value and low or high burden.
Buckley’s framework to weigh the value of different forms of assessment. (J-C Couture), Author provided

In other words, the perceived benefit of any assessment depends on one’s role in the education system.

For example, classroom teachers in Alberta found there was considerable time and effort required for a province-wide school improvement program. Funded by the Alberta government from 2000 to 2013, it focused on helping teachers develop assessments with support from university researchers.

A comprehensive impact study demonstrated teachers were better able to gauge and then respond to the individual learning needs of each student amid the growing diversity and complexity of Alberta’s classrooms.

Seen in Buckley’s framework, while this assessment was high burden, it was also of high value to both teachers and students.


Read more: Problems with PISA: Why Canadians should be skeptical of the global test


It’s important to consider a range of unintended consequences when determining the value and burden of a system-wide assessment. When teachers feel pressured to tailor their teaching to standardized testing — instead of what’s needed in their classrooms — this can result in narrow curriculum, increased teacher and student stress and adverse effects on marginalized students.

Students seen from the back walking into a school building.
A preoccupation with standardized testing can mean less energy and time in classrooms to meet particular student needs. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

Low value to students

What worries us are tests that are of low value to students, families and educators in classrooms. PISA is a prime example.

In Canada, PISA does not provide results for the specific students who take the test, nor does it provide results for the specific schools that participate. PISA only provides valid data at the provincial level, but how provinces use the data differs.


Read more: Global education rankings may overlook poor graduation rates


What benefit will parents see for their children who are spending important instructional time completing assessments and questionnaires that offer no information about their progress?

When school communities are addressing the impacts of the pandemic, PISA’s inability to directly inform classroom practices of the test taker speaks to the little value it possesses.

The Council of Ministers of Education champions the benefits of PISA as part of its “pan-Canadian leadership,” but in post-pandemic recovery, what’s needed are approaches tailored to meet the needs of Canadian students.


Read more: Pandemic education crisis: Canada is failing to tackle 'lost year' in K-12 education


We need a broader public discussion on the relative burden and value of standardized testing at this time to revisit how large-scale assessment contributes to educational development and policy-making across the country.

While the benefits and costs of PISA remain contested, one major problem has been how governments inappropriately interpret the data.

Divisive policies

Consider Alberta, where successive governments led the charge in promoting the value of international assessments to evaluate curriculum and other educational policies and programs.

Meanwhile, efforts to rewrite provincial curricula have been stalled since 2010 — perhaps the consequence of failing to remind Albertans that PISA does not assess how well students have learned a specific curriculum.

Alberta’s largely self-inflicted wounds afforded by PISA are not unique. Several other provinces — including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia — are examples of how provinces are looking towards OECD policies, driven by PISA, to justify highly contested and divisive approaches to education.

We need to support our schools during this time of transition. Well into the first year of the pandemic, the impacts on students were well-documented. Research has illustrated the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the mental health and well-being of young people and their families.

Put students first

In schools, it’s critical to focus on assessments that are of high value for student learning. In the short-term, pausing PISA participation is an easy way to lessen the burden on our educators and students, and is simply the right thing to do.

Given that researchers have pointed to the uncertain futures of international large-scale assessments, we also encourage education ministries across the country to engage in a broader discussion with the education sector and the public concerning PISA.

Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that all student testing has high value and directly helps educators promote student learning.

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