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Do we place too much importance on international test data?

In the course of my work, I meet many people who are deeply interested in education.

Interest in education is a universal one, as people recognise its vital importance to society as a whole. It is well recognised that most people more than an interest in education; they have opinions and views about it. One only has to look at elections in counties around the world – all parties have their education platforms, looking back over time, it is education that has brought about the huge social and economic reforms, while these are not the only factors of great change they are two factors which can arguably make the biggest difference to the lives of human beings. That is why education is never far from the front pages of most newspapers or form the headlines of the electronic media, that is why nations around the world work hard to improve the quality of their educations systems and why they strive to enhance international perceptions of their performance in international tests which compare national performance [PISA, TIMMS and PIRLS being among these testing regimes]

This website has frequently referred to the vast body of research evidence which clearly points to which the most important significant element in the achievement of high educational performance for individual students, schools, and school systems.

This element is evident not only in the research data but also in our own personal journeys in school education. If you ask any person about whom they count as their best teacher or best teachers in their school life, they will quickly identity them. If you follow this up with a question about what it was about those people that made them the best teachers of the person being asked the question, you will get a personal response about what makes s good teacher.

I have asked these two questions of many people, probably hundreds. It is easy to predict what they will say. What responses do they give? First, let me mention what they do not say – almost without exception, they will not say things which directly relate to a learning skill or a mastery milestone. They will not say “because they taught me to read” or “they helped me understand algebra” and so on. What the respondents will invariably say is something about their qualities as people and as teachers, such as “they seemed to know and understand me”; “they made learning exciting”; “they loved their work as a teacher” and so on it goes.

I urge our readers to try asking these two questions to their friends. I will be surprised if the responses you get are much different from the ones mentioned above.

The worrying thing for those who want to improve education is why people cannot think of many teachers to rank among their highest performers.
Do nations place too much evidence on high performance as indicated in the international tests? I am sure at SCLT we would say that what is needed is a balanced approach. By this I mean that nations have their own strengths in their education systems which are not tested by the well known international bench marking tests. It’s good to recognise that some systems do well in teaching reading, Mathematics and Science and it’s good to try to learn something from them, but it is impossible to clone the cultural, social and economic conditions of one country for another. The emphasis ought to be on what can reasonably expected of a school or a system in bringing about improvement based on its own context.

I thought about this a lot during a recent visit to a national exhibition of 2000 Depart of Local Administration schools from around Thailand. As I approached the largest exhibition centre in Thailand I was surprised by the crowds of people that were moving towards the exhibition hall. When I entered the hall my eyes opened at the extent and quality of the exhibitions of these schools. There was art, music, and cultural craft being made by primary and secondary students from all corners of the nation. Alongside the traditional was the contemporary, with students working on robotic models. But my thought was this – what a shame that the international tests do not cover such things as the learning that was going on in these schools and in this form and what a shame that there is no international measure of cultural pride that enables these skills to pass from generation to generation. This pride and these skills were on show here and excellent learning was taking place.

This is why nations should not be over focused on the international comparisons. After all, who really cares who wins the most medals at the Olympic Games? Nations do care though, that they send a team to compete, no matter how large or small the team, and no matter how many medals they take home.

Our job as teachers is to teach as well as we can, learning from assessment experts and use this knowledge to improve student performance in our own classrooms and schools.

In this month’s edition two of our regular contributors, Dr Don Jordan and Ms Ellen Cornish provide an excellent article on student self assessment. I urge our readers to read the article and try some of the processes of student self assessment suggested by the authors.

Greg Cairnduff
Greg is Director of the Australian International School of Bangkok

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