Key PISA finding thrown into doubt by Cambridge Assessment research

07 February 2014

A key finding of the influential PISA tests – that countries do better when their schools have high levels of both autonomy and accountability – has been questioned by research from Cambridge Assessment.

Researchers analysed data from PISA 2009 and found it did not support a claim made by the OECD that schools do better when given freedom over which teachers they employ, for example, while still being held accountable by league tables and other measures. 

The OECD has stated: “Within countries where schools are held to account for their results through posting achievement data publicly, schools that enjoy greater autonomy in resource allocation tend to do better than those with less autonomy”. 

But Dr Tom Benton, of the Assessment Research and Development division at Cambridge Assessment, found that the data does not support the claim. Dr Benton discovered the anomaly while researching PISA for a presentation at the recent Association for Educational Assessment Europe conference. He found that when the analysis divides schools into two categories – private (independent) and public (state) the findings are rendered statistically insignificant.

“The assertion that the key to driving up standards is to combine greater school autonomy with sharper accountability is far from proven,” Dr Benton said. 

“For this reason, we would recommend that, particularly in the case of international data, analyses should be independently scrutinised before being used to promote particular educational policies”.

Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment’s Group Director of Assessment Research and Development, said: 

“PISA is now a large and expansive research programme with volumes of data and analysis every year. It is therefore becoming increasingly difficult to draw single conclusions across different systems with total precision and confidence.

“The detail in all this analysis is however of huge value in reviewing policy and developments associated with improved system performance.” 

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