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Fall 2018

Beware Assessments

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Beware of Test Assessments

How an obsession with rankings diverts attention from better uses of testing data.

For years, educational systems around the world were smitten with Finland. Year after year, big international test score rankings showed tiny Finland leading the pack in content areas like math and science, and everyone wanted to know how to recreate “the Finnish miracle.”

But as Professor Judith Singer points out in her new paper, “Testing International Education Assessments,” published in the April issue of Science, this obsession with rankings “not only misleads, it diverts attention from more constructive uses” of the data.

Instead, countries should use information from assessment like this to learn more about themselves, Singer writes along with Henry Braun, a professor at Boston College. Data pulled from tests like PISA and TIMSS can also be used to help spark political will as governments pay attention to the findings and the public, in turn, demands action.

With this in mind, here are several factors not often considered when reading only the headlines of these international test score stories, Singer points out:

  • Not all 15-year-olds (target age) are counted in a given country or region. In 2012, for example, Shanghai excluded 27 percent of its 15-year-olds. In Mexico and Turkey, as many as 40 percent of students that age dropped out.
  • Only about 50 or 75 countries or regions routinely administer these international large-scale assessments — a statistically small number that can make it difficult to truly identify patterns.
  • Private tutoring is popular in many countries in Asia, Africa, and in Latin America. In South Korea, for example, half of the participants who took the 2012 PISA test reported receiving private tutoring, often focused on — guess what? — doing well on tests.
  • Test scores only give us an average for an entire country. Variations within a country — how teachers are trained or socioeconomic factors — are not taken into account. Countries with decentralized education systems, like the United States, Canada, and Germany, are ranked alongside countries with centralized, national school systems, such as France.

Read the full paper.