Monday, 5 December 2011

Opting into PISA’s 2012 problem solving test

Here's a virtual contribution to today's Whole Education conference.

The idea is straightforward; putting it into practice would probably involve overcoming torturous bureaucratic and diplomatic hurdles.

It concerns next year’s PISA new problem solving test which will be run alongside the usual literacy and numeracy assessments, and is being taken by 43 out of 66 OECD countries. The Department for Education has decided to opt out, as it does not wish to ‘overburden schools.’ There are obvious ideological reasons behind this, although Michael Gove’s thoughtful speech to the Schools Network Conference last week did suggest a broader philosophy of education, acknowledging the need to bring teaching and learning up to date with the demands of current society and workplaces.

The OECD is initiating these tests since “we need to assess problem-solving abilities as governments around the world seek to equip young people with the skills they need for life and employment.” The DfE may have been put off by some of the baggage which the OECD has attached to the problem solving framework around “progressive teaching methods”. The test “aims to examine how students are prepared to meet unknown future challenges for which direct teaching of today’s knowledge is not sufficient. “ This is not the language to attract sceptics within and beyond DfE. However, this is not about a battle between so-called traditional and modern pedagogies; it’s simply after a robust assessment of outcomes, regardless of methods.

Can a group of UK organisations work with OECD to ‘opt in’ to this test? We would find a representative sample of schools, using all the appropriate OECD methodologies, (to avoid tainting our sample with too many skills-serious schools).

Assessing skills is difficult; The QCDA came close with a strong, jargon-free analysis of personal learning and thinking skills, but this never gained traction in enough schools, or developed into a common assessment framework. Our refusal to grasp the skills assessment challenge is part of the reason why the daft and destructive knowledge vs. skills battle that overshadows too much education debate never goes away.

Although we might have concerns about a computer-based problem solving assessment, the OECD and Pearson’s combined approach is likely to be very high quality and as evidence-based as possible. Taking these tests in 2012 would provide England with a benchmark for improvement over time and in comparison with other nations. Who knows? We might even come in the top three, and benefit from a boom in educational tourism, as foreign educators come pleading ‘why can’t we be like the English?’

... or Scottish, or Welsh, for that matter. I can’t find out whether they are participating – can anyone help? I am aiming to build a broad coalition of organisations who could help us work with OECD to ensure that as many nations in the UK as possible participate in this test in 2012. We will need organisations that can mobilise thousands of school leaders – the NAHT and ACSL maybe but Whole Education might also play a role. 

There may be an obvious flaw in my proposal. And it might be better for us all to lobby for the DfE to change its mind. But until told otherwise, we will keep pursuing this idea. If information is power, information gathering could be empowering.