Avoid uncritical use of PISA, say researchers

Leaning tower of Pisa

Policy makers should guard against uncritical use of PISA international test results, according to research released today by Cambridge Assessment.

The findings come as the latest round of PISA testing in UK schools and globally is drawing to a close, with the results expected in just over a year’s time.

Cambridge Assessment, a department of the University of Cambridge, compared individual pupil achievement on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) with the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education).

The researchers, Dr Matthew Carroll and Dr Tom Benton, acknowledge that the two assessments have different purposes; PISA focuses on the performances of whole countries, while GCSEs are designed to test individual pupils’ knowledge. But they say that understanding the links between performances on the two assessments is important, not least because it helps us understand the extent to which performance in PISA reflects the success or otherwise of the UK’s school system.

As an example, the researchers found that the correlation between performance on the PISA reading test and in GCSE English is not particularly high. In fact, performance on the PISA reading tests is at least as closely aligned with achievement in GCSE science (correlation of 0.69) as it is with GCSE English (0.68). When the researchers then viewed published PISA questions they found that several asked students to read and interpret tables or figures of scientific information, a skill that is more often a feature of GCSE science than GCSE English.

The researchers note however that in England, GCSE English forms a fundamental part of the way that school performance is judged, and there is a strong focus on teaching essay-writing skills.

“However, it is clear that when it comes to judging the performance of our education system as a whole using PISA, essay-writing is not measured,” the researchers say.

“Thus the performance of England’s education system is judged whilst ignoring some of the key skills that schools are trying to teach.”

The study also shows how PISA performance of students can differ depending upon their GCSE subject choices. For example, even amongst those with equally good attainment in maths GCSE, students who studied separate sciences performed much better in PISA maths than those that had studied combined science.

Watch Tom Benton present his research below

Research Matters

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.

Research Matters 32 promo image

Media contacts

Contact our press and Public Affairs office

Tel:  +44 (0)1223 556018 
Email: press@cambridge.org