Are England’s PISA test scores really “plummeting”?

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates

Browsing the Guardian, I came across John Jerrim's 2011 (but suddenly very topical) report for the Institute of Education: England’s “plummeting” PISA test scores between 2000 and 2009: Is the performance of our secondary school pupils really in relative decline? Here’s the Abstract.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) are two highly respected cross-national studies of pupil achievement.  These have been specifically designed to study how different countries’ educational systems are performing against one another, and how this is changing over time.  These are, however, politically sensitive issues, where different surveys can produce markedly different results.  This is shown via a case study for England, where apparent decline in PISA test performance has caused policymakers much concern.  Results suggest that England’s drop in the PISA international ranking is not replicated in TIMSS, and that this contrast may well be due to data limitations in both surveys.  Consequently, I argue that the current coalition government should not base educational policies on the assumption that the performance of England’s secondary school pupils has declined (relative to that of its international competitors) over the past decade.

Mr Gove's rhetoric and policies owe much to this apparent decline, as Peter Wilby reminds us.  Wilby also reported the recent Pearson Economist Intelligence Unit study, which I commented on last month, that seems to show the UK (mostly England, of course) doing much better than expected which, as I noted, is awkward for Gove.  However, if you look at the EIU data, you find an odd thing.  Whilst the UK comes a creditable 6th overall [out of 40] in this ranking of cognitive skills and educational attainment, there is not an evenness of success across each category.  We're a disastrous 12th for cognitive, and a triumphant 2nd for attainment – even above those irritating Fins.

There is no contradiction here as these two aspects measure quite different things.  The indicators used in the Index are:

  • Cognitive Skills:  a combination of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS scores in Reading, Maths and Science in school (up to 16)
  • Educational Attainment: a combination of literacy and graduation rates (post-16)

The weighting algorithms (to which controversy inevitably attaches) can be summarised:

The overall index score is the weighted sum of the underlying two category scores. Likewise, the category scores are the weighted sum of the underlying indicator scores. The default weighting for the Index is two-thirds to cognitive skills and one-third to educational attainment. Within the cognitive skills category, the Grade 8 tests’ score accounts for 60% while the Grade 4 tests’ score accounts for 40% (Reading, Maths and Science all account for equal weights). Within the educational attainment category, the literacy rate and graduation rates account for equal weights.

Clearly the UK score is boosted significantly by our strong literacy and graduation rates.  Whilst the latter is obvious, the report never quite explains how 'literacy rates' are arrived at.  This is not about reading, as that is in the cognitive measure; it's a broader quality and relates to post-16 education in schools and universities.

Well, whatever this is, we do it well, though not as well as those pesky South Koreans.  Overall though, it does look as if the UK's post-16 education system is rescuing its pre-16 sibling.  So Mr Gove has a point after all ... .

Posted in: Comment, News and Updates


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