By Ángel Gurría
Secretary-General of the OECD
By assessing the capabilities and knowledge of students in the highest-performing and most rapidly improving education systems, the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment provides valuable options for reform and information on how to achieve it. PISA brings together policymakers, educators, and researchers from around the world to discuss what knowledge students need to become successful and responsible citizens in today's world, and how to develop more effective, inclusive education systems.
Some claim that the PISA results are based on too wide a range of factors to be relevant, while others point out the challenges inherent in testing students in various languages and with different cultural backgrounds. Of course, comparing education across countries is not easy, but PISA remains the most useful tool yet developed for policymakers attempting to improve their national education systems.
Before PISA, many governments claimed that they oversaw the world's most successful education systems, and insisted that they had already taken the steps needed to address any shortcomings. By exposing weaknesses in a particular country's system, PISA assessments help to ensure that policymakers recognize - and, it is hoped, address - remaining deficiencies.
The sense of accountability that PISA fosters among governments and education ministers has helped to spur them into action. They increasingly turn to one another to learn how to apply innovations in curricula, pedagogy, and digital resources; how to offer personalized learning experiences that maximize every student's chances of success; and how to cope with diversity in the classroom.
The OECD established PISA as a global assessment, because in today's globalized world students must be able to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds and appreciate different ideas, perspectives, and values. To give students the best possible chance to succeed, education must prepare them to handle issues that transcend national boundaries.
But PISA's most important outcomes lie at the national level, because it inspires innovation and broadens educational perspectives within countries. Education systems as diverse as those in Finland, Japan, China, and Canada - which seldom registered on policymakers' radars before - have become global reference points for excellence in education, helping other countries to design effective reforms.
When Brazil emerged as the lowest-performing education system in the first PISA assessment, released in 2000, many people rightly questioned the fairness of comparing an emerging economy to advanced countries like Finland and Japan. But Brazil rose to the challenge, making massive investments in improving the quality of teaching. The country now boasts one of the world's most rapidly improving education systems.
Germany also featured in PISA 2000, recording below-average performance and large social inequalities in education - an outcome that stunned Germans and initiated a months-long public debate. Spurred into action, the government launched initiatives to support disadvantaged and immigrant students, and made the notion of early childhood education a driving force in German education policy. Today, PISA reports confirm that the quality and fairness of Germany's education system have improved considerably.
Even in the world's best-performing education systems, PISA helps to pinpoint areas for improvement. For example, PISA assessments have revealed that, while Japanese students excel at reproducing what they have learned, they often struggle when asked to extrapolate from that knowledge and apply it creatively. The effort that this has inspired to create more innovative learning environments was apparent last April, during a visit to the Tohoku schools destroyed by the 2011 tsunami.
This experience offers yet another lesson: even in cases where social and cultural factors seem to be the main force shaping a country's education style, improvements are possible. Countries like Japan do not have to change their cultures to address their educational shortcomings; they simply have to adjust their policies and practices.
Creating a global platform for collaboration in education research and innovation has been the PISA initiative's aspiration from its conception in the late 1990s. Since then, policymakers, researchers, and experts have built the world's largest professional network dedicated to the development of robust, reliable, and internationally comparable information on student learning outcomes.
At the same time, PISA measures students' social and emotional skills and attitudes toward learning, as well as educational equity and parental support - all of which provides indispensable context for understanding scores on international assessments.
Of course, assessments do not cover every important skill or attitude. But there is convincing evidence that the knowledge and skills that the PISA system assesses are essential to students' future success, and the OECD works continuously to broaden the range of cognitive and social skills that PISA measures.
PISA has already prompted important advances in education worldwide. The OECD will continue to work with the 80 participating countries to develop the program further, so that it can continue to help policymakers and educators design and implement better education policies - and give their citizens access to the tools that they need to build better lives.
Copyright: Project Syndicate