Interpreting PISA - Understanding national educational improvement

Ambitious curricula, aligned assessment and a focus on all students are the key to educational improvement, a Cambridge Assessment Network seminar has heard. 

Portugal has been highlighted as a success story in curriculum and educational reform, in particular due to the country’s leap in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test scores between 2006 and 2015. During the latter half of this period Portugal was able to achieve an outcome that many countries aspire to but few attain: increasing the share of top performers while simultaneously decreasing the share of low performers. 

Professor Nuno Crato OIH who served as the country’s Minister of Education and Science in Portugal from 2011 to 2015, shared his insights into the country’s success story at the seminar which attracted hundreds of participants from 59 countries.

Referring to his published work on the country's experience, he said that “everything starts with the curriculum”. This meant that schools needed a demanding curriculum, centred on essential subjects with “knowledge at the base”. Frequent assessment was also essential, he said – ideally around school grades six, nine and twelve. “Evaluation is an incentive – it’s a key part of system improvement,” he said. 

Another key part was a “programme to fight failure”. This included intervention at first difficulties, special hours and temporary groupings for those who were struggling – although this did not mean tracking or streaming pupils. “This intervention is based on the concept that everybody can reach a reasonable level,” he said. 

The last part of the formula that saw Portuguese success was school autonomy. Prof Crato said that although autonomy could have different meanings in different countries and contexts, in Portugal it was achieved by giving schools incentives such as credits for supporting students in difficulty and evaluating results instead of trying to control the processes. 

Introducing the talk, Cambridge Assessment’s Director of Assessment Research and Development Tim Oates CBE said that Prof. Crato’s work was particularly important because it highlighted the importance of understanding time lags between policy interventions and educational outcomes. Tim himself has done a lot of research in this area, such as his analysis of Finland’s PISA outcomes ‘Finnish Fairy Stories’. 

“What Nuno does is look at the actions which were taken in Portugal at a particular time and when the impacts subsequently emerge in the data,” said Tim.  “There was much discussion by the OECD [the organisation that runs PISA tests] of Finland being a particular success, then Poland, Portugal and now Estonia, but throughout those countries being championed I think there has been confusion about which policy has resulted in which outcome and we are seeing that quite tangibly now.”

The talk coincided with the release of a book edited by Prof Crato that Tim has contributed a chapter to. Improving a Country’s Education is an open access book and therefore can be downloaded for free from the publishers Springer.

The talk was followed by a comprehensive question and answer session. You can watch the talk back by clicking on the link above.

Research Matters

Research Matters 28: Autumn 2019

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.