Focusing on narrow PISA measures may increase skill levels but cause students to miss out on the kinds of learning that generates higher-order thinking. (Shutterstock)

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

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) — the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) global standardized test of student achievement — is frequently used by commentators to compare and rank national or provincial education systems.

PISA, which has now spread into 80 countries as a best education practice, presents itself as a tool to help countries make their systems more inclusive leading to equitable outcomes. But PISA is far more ambiguous and controversial.

Many academics and educators critique PISA as an economic measurement, not an educational one. The media generally use PISA results to blame and shame school systems. And the way that some politicians, policy-makers and researchers have used PISA is more closely aligned to a political process than an educational one.

There are many reasons to be skeptical about PISA rankings and how they’re used to compare student achievement or to identify best practices or solutions for educational problems.

1. A narrow measurement

PISA numbers are limited in what they can explain and the conclusions they can support.

PISA measures math, science and reading skills, not more holistic educational goals or understanding of literacy as defined by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). PISA is a narrow measure of educational achievement.


Read more: Testing literacy today requires more than a pencil and paper


PISA typically samples 5,000 to 10,000 15-year-old students from about 500 randomly selected schools in each country every three years. Up to 53 students are randomly selected in each of these schools.

In small countries with fewer than 5,000 students, all 15-year-old students are sampled. The two-hour test relies heavily on multiple choice and rating scale questions.

PISA ignores the importance of engagement and positive attitudes to learning for future success.

The capacity for teamwork resists measurement but is significant for student and lifelong success. (Shutterstock)

Educational outcomes that are important for future citizens or a well-rounded education are not captured: for example, democratic participation, understanding of history and politics, teamwork, well-being, moral values, creativity, aesthetic skills, athletic talent or communication skills.

2. Relation to Indigenous schools, special needs students

In Canada, federally funded Indigenous schools are not considered in PISA data and would likely impact provincial scores. The absence of Indigenous schools may help mask disparities in educational equity in Canada and marginalize the significance of chronic under-funding of Indigenous-controlled education and basic infrastructure necessary to Indigenous child well-being.

Differing levels of how special needs students are integrated in distinct jurisdictions also confound PISA results.

3. Statistical uncertainty

PISA tests a sample of students and the results are then adjusted to reflect a whole population of 15-year-old students. The scores therefore include a measure of statistical uncertainty and PISA can only report a range of positions (upper rank and lower rank) where a country can be placed.

There is a co-relation between poverty and lower test results: the OECD notes that up to 46 per cent of the differences in PISA mathematics scores among OECD countries can be explained by socio-economic disadvantage.

Psychometric experts, who examine the fitness and effects of particular methodological choices and the validity and reliability of modelling and calculations, criticize PISA for downplaying the problematic nature of its calculations, and its lack of transparency in reporting uncertainties.

The majority of nations fall in the middle PISA rankings. However, small differences in mean scores can shift rankings by 10 to 20 places.

Relying on a small number of questions also means scores are highly affected by completion rates. In some jurisdictions, higher scores may result from greater significance being placed on PISA completion by parents and school authorities.

4. Pressure to narrow curricula

As an instrument of international comparison, PISA has created pressure for states to narrow curricula, relegating subjects such as the arts and social studies to second-class status, and to introduce testing cultures to monitor performance and achievement.

Testing culture has been linked to a dislike of schools and learning. (Shutterstock)

Testing culture and curriculum narrowing have been linked to students dropping out, students and teachers cheating, students undergoing stress and anxiety disorders, teachers leaving the profession, a fear of failing and a dislike of schools and learning.

5. Overlooking inquiry-based learning

As school systems narrow curricula to focus on testable concepts, students may reach high levels of proficiency in a few subjects but lose out on programs of study based on active, inquiry-based processes and content.

Countries with the highest PISA scores appear to have the lowest levels of inquiry-based learning. High levels of inquiry-based science appear to have a negative association with PISA science scores. Focusing on PISA may increase skill levels but cause students to miss out on learning that generates higher-order thinking.

6. Cultural specificity

Even though PISA use is spreading globally, and is translated into national languages, it is still framed by Western understandings and may distort results from students with diverse social and cultural histories. This will become more of a challenge as PISA’s ambition is to move beyond testing skills to assess attitudes that promote student success.

7. Corporate partnership in the age of digital surveillance

Finally, journalists and researchers have expressed concerns about PISA’s partnership with Pearson, a global educational business enterprise that boasts it operates more than 70 countries worldwide, reaching 100 million people.

The partnership is a worrisome conflict of interest. PISA assesses and ranks school systems and Pearson is a provider of global and online charter schools, tests and education consulting. Additionally, in an age of rising concern about digital surveillance and data privacy, it is reasonable to ask how data on students and teachers that’s collected globally may be used, and to what end.

What needs to change

Other democratically governed organizations such as UNESCO should play a larger role in the collection of international educational data. This would ensure students’ and teachers’ rights are protected and children have the vibrant and democratic educational structures, processes and relationships they are entitled to.

PISA has shifted education discussion globally in alarming ways. The OECD needs to listen to critical voices and rethink its PISA strategy and framework.