Concerns over the effectiveness of national education systems and the increasing demands of the knowledge economy have intensified with the emergence of international testing. International student assessment programmes such as the Programme in International Student Assessment (PISA), Programme for Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) provide performance data that highlights the relative standing of countries in core curricular areas such as reading, writing, mathematics, and science. By allowing educational jurisdictions to 'evaluate education systems worldwide' and provide valuable information so that 'countries and economies participating in successive surveys can compare their students' performance over time and assess the impact of education policy decisions' (see, many countries have felt compelled to initiate reforms with the aim of enhancing their intellectual capital ¿ the collective achievement of their elementary and secondary students.

February, 03 2016   |   Louis Volante

The relationship between international student assessment and educational policy formation is supported by research conducted for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ¿ the international body responsible for the coordination of PISA. Breakspear (2012) conducted an analysis of the impact of PISA in 37 countries [Australia, Austria, Belgium (French and Flemish speaking communities), Canada, Chile, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Singapore, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom (England, Scotland and Wales), and the United States of America]. Some of the more prominent findings were that PISA results influenced policies and initiatives, including: formation, expansion and improvements to national/federal assessment and evaluation systems; revision of curriculum standards, often to include and emphasise PISA competencies (e.g. Ireland, Germany, Greece, and Norway); postponing student tracking decisions (e.g. Belgium [French-speaking community]); strategies and discussions on how to improve student engagement and attitudes (e.g. Austria, Japan, and Korea); and encouraging competency-based teaching and learning (e.g. Hungary). Collectively, Breakspear's (2012) analysis found that PISA rankings led to or inspired changes in 19 countries/economies, and partly led to change in an additional 11 countries/economies. Collectively, the OECD and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IAEA), which coordinates TIMSS and PIRLS, support the use of international testing data for system improvement.

However, not everyone is convinced of the positive relationship between international comparison testing and educational policy formation, particularly academics that teach and conduct research in the areas of assessment and evaluation. In an open letter to Dr. Andreas Schleicher, the director of the OECD programme, a group of more than 80 academics from across the globe, voiced concerns about the impact of PISA and called for an immediate halt to the next round of testing. Chief among their concerns were that PISA: contributes to an escalation of testing and dramatically increases reliance on quantitative measures; shifts attention to short-term fixes designed to help a country quickly climb the rankings (despite research demonstrating that enduring changes in education practice take decades to come to fruition); takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives in physical, moral, civic, and artistic development (thereby dangerously narrowing our collective view regarding the purpose of education); is naturally biased in favour of the economic role of public [state] schools versus how to prepare students for participation in democratic self-government, moral action, and a life of personal development, growth, and wellbeing; and that its continuous cycle of global testing, harms children and adversely impacts classrooms, and inevitably involves more and longer batteries of multiple-choice testing, more scripted 'vendor-made' lessons, and less professional autonomy for teachers ( Collectively, this litany of concerns underscores the convergence of educational governance and policies across the globe because of an emphasis on international student assessments.

It is difficult to reconcile these diametrically opposed views. Certainly, international assessment programmes offer the international community valuable benchmark data to better understand the interaction of important contextual variables (i.e., socio-economic status and parental education levels) with student achievement. However, the degree of influence of international assessments in large-scale reforms may seem excessive, particularly if policies are taken from a high-achieving nation that differs significantly in cultural, social, and political terms. The international community will need to find the right balance of 'learning from' versus 'copying' high-achieving nations and embark on programmes of research that help educational jurisdictions achieve this elusive goal. The latter is no small task given the contemporary forces of globalisation acting on national/regional education systems and encouraging a quick increase in intellectual capital.

Louis Volante is a professor in the Faculty of Education at Brock University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. His research focuses on assessment systems and cultures, globalisation, and educational change, comparative policy analysis, and the evaluation of large-scale reform.


Andrews, P., et al. (2014, May 6). OECD and PISA tests are damaging education worldwide ¿ academics. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Breakspear, S. (2012). The policy impact of PISA: An exploration of the normative effects of international benchmarking in school system performance. OECD Education Working Papers, 71. Retrieved from

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