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Image by Pavan Trikutam


End of year gifts

The OECD implements the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in member and non-member countries to evaluate the school performance of 15-year-old pupils in reading, mathematics and science.

On 5 December, its 2022 cycle results were published. Each participating country samples 5000 pupils for a 2-hour computerised, standardised assessment on the three fields mentioned before. OECD chose to focus PISA results on mathematics and digital learning for the 2022 cycle. PISA has become a landmark for governments’ approach to learning and assessment even though education stakeholders frequently criticised the approach of standardised testing as can be seen from LLLP’s 2021 Position PaperRethinking Assessments: Prioritising Learners’ Wellbeing’.


In November, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement also published its 2022 cycle results for the International Civic and Citizenship Education Study, which runs every 6 years. This measures specifically the civic competences that pupils have in 24 education systems, mostly in Europe, for learners of the age 14.

PISA results: the long-road ahead for basic competences

PISA results registered the biggest cycle-to-cycle decrease ever. An average of about 15 points decrease was registered for mathematics and of 10 points for reading, while the results in science remained stable. It cannot be denied that COVID-19 influenced these results, but the question remains how much blame can be placed on it and what was done in its aftermath to prevent trends from exacerbating.

No European country improved performance in PISA since 2018 while equity continued to be a determinant for scholastic achievement. Socio-economically advantaged learners scored 93 points more in mathematics tests compared to their disadvantaged peers.

The gaps extend inter-countries, with most disadvantaged learners from Singapore, Japan or Estonia outperforming many of most advantaged learners from other OECD countries. For the gender gap, boys outperformed girls in mathematics (by 9 points in test scores) while girls outperformed boys in reading (24 points in test scores).

Other findings show that if parental engagement was high, learners performed better. Similarly, where educator support was present during COVID-19 closures, learners performed better. Moreover, learners that used digital tools in learning scored 14 points more in mathematics tests compared to learners that did not use digital tools. Nevertheless, the amount of time spent using digital tools and how they are used matters. Learners performed poorly in mathematics tests if they were being distracted by digital devices during learning.

ICCS: civic engagement is waning and learners lose trust in political representatives

The 2022 ICCS also paints a negative picture, considering that for the first time in 14 years no country experienced a statistically significant increase in civic competence acquisition. This accounted for a decrease of 6ppts in learners with high scores on civic competences and an increase of 5ppts for those learners that lack the most basic civic competences. The study paints the image of only a third of learners being civically engaged with high numbers disagreeing that current political systems or representatives operate well. 

Blind faith in standardised testing and forgetting about civic competences cannot address challenges

There are many concerns about the validity of standardised testing applied worldwide, which have been highlighted in LLLP’s 2021 Position PaperRethinking Assessments: Prioritising Learners’ Wellbeing. The all-or-nothing approach that such exercises have, and the multiple choice questions (even if not the sole question type used) are not conducive to explore how learners use acquired competences, how they use assessment to further develop competences or what competences they genuinely have, considering how stressful such formats can be for some learners.

Such assignments tend to favour those learners that easily adapt to this format, considering how others thrive more by using portfolio-based assessments, dialogic assessment, peer-to-peer assessment and other types of formative assessment methods. They do also tend to reinforce existing equity gaps as those most advantaged learners continue to have the resources to acquire the knowledge needed for the tests. All while such tests fail to fully account for learners’ wellbeing or for measuring standards beyond achieving scores.

Nevertheless, the significant drop in performance remains valid for understanding that even in a faulty, but familiar, format of examination learners are underperforming. The education and training systems find themselves at a big crossroad in Europe, especially if we consider how Asian countries have weathered the pandemic better and have a good ground to build on further. Once the basic competences of PISA are put together with the ISSC measured civic competences, it becomes clear that a wider range of competences lacking in the EU puts the European project at risk.

Steps forward: a time for structural change

LLLP fully supports the reflection process that countries part of PISA must undergo to reform the existing situation. However, the reform should not be about improving test scores, but genuinely improving learners’ competences and their capacity to engage in a lasting, lifelong learning. To this end, LLLP proposes an alternative to how learning is performed, moving more towards a competence-oriented approach.

The 2023 Position Paper of LLLP, ‘Key Competences for All: A Lifelong Learning Approach’ provides an overview of the systemic reforms required to change the model of learning and truly make it learner-centred so as to combat inequity, develop key competences and ensure a culture of lifelong learning across all societies. The 2022 results should not be placed solely on the shoulders of the pandemic with an expectation to recuperate bit by bit what was lost. Rather it should serve as a year in which reflection is done based on what systemic changes can help rebuild education and training better.