For decades, many countries relied on its end of school year results as an indicator of basic skills acquisition of 15/16-year olds. A crucial time of an individual’s life, age 16 is perceived to be the point of determining future prospects through the consideration of options into further education, apprenticeships or employment. The options are largely influenced by the socio-economic status of the family of the individual, immediate employment opportunities, government education policy and access to higher education.
Released results of exam boards do not necessarily depict accurate literacy rates of the 15/16-year olds due to the widely accepted standard of gaining good grades in at least 5 subjects including Mathematics and English Language in the case of African Anglophone countries. While many do attend school to receive instructions and are exposed to standard subjects, learning may not necessarily take place. What is considered of most importance is the ability to read, write, understand language and make sense of numerical concepts for personal effectiveness and communal participation.
According to Word Bank data, Africa as a continent still lags behind in global rankings of literacy rates though with recent improvements in the past 2 decades with the highest literacy in Seychelles and Sao Tome Principe at 96% and 93% respectively. In view of the current state of literacy levels in Africa, worldwide efforts of global organisations, charitable organisation and government education policy to improve education access are commended. The collation of data indicates areas of high needs where education does not offer any form of attraction to certain cultures as a result of poor communal perception of links between education and prosperity. Areas of few opportunities and very low employment prospects may also suffer from minimum education participation with the preference to depend largely on subsistence which is culturally agrarian to certain groups of people.
The challenge of raising literacy levels depends largely on the assessment of young peoples’ skills and competencies as it serves as an indication of individual and national economic development through the immediate choices made available to them. Admirable in the face of global shifting trends is the PISA testing programme developed and launched by the OECD in 1997 with the objective to develop regular, reliable and policy relevant indicators on student achievement of basic competencies in language, Mathematics and Science.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international organisation whose mission is to build better policies for better lives is entrusted with the objective to shape policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all. By working with governments, policy makers and citizens. They work on establishing international standards and finding evidence-based solutions to a range of social, economic and environmental challenges including the creation of employment, boosting education provision and identifying global tax evasion. At its onset in 1961, 36 member countries acceded to the objectives of the organisation, effectively becoming an OECD country with Colombia’s recent and successful application as the 37th country.
Strongly associated with the OECD is the PISA test, Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international assessment that measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy triennially. First conducted in 2000, the major domain of study rotates between reading, mathematics, and science in each cycle. PISA also includes measures of general or cross-curricular competencies, such as collaborative problem solving. By design, PISA emphasizes functional skills  that students have acquired as they near the end of compulsory schooling. PISA 2018 assessed students’ science, reading, and mathematics literacy in about 80 countries and education systems. Reading was the focal subject of the 2018 data collection, as it was in 2009. According to PISA 2018, insights and interpretation, PISA aims to support schools and policy makers move from looking upward within the education system towards looking outward to the next teacher, the next school, the next country. In essence, PISA focuses on the essentials making that that information available to educators and policy makers so they can make more informed decisions. The initiation of the assessment distinguishes itself form traditional assessments in that is presents the realities of a world that rewards individuals increasingly not just for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know. PISA goes beyond assessing learners’ knowledge through regurgitation of facts and figures but the ability to extract valuable information across different contexts and the creative application of knowledge in new situations which effectively demonstrates effective leaning methodologies. Teaching students what we know has become inadequate in a fast-moving world but teaching students how to learn, to develop independent thinking skills and to work collaboratively will help young people achieve beyond their potential.
The Policy Impact of PISA test on UK Education
Whether taken politically or universally as the international yardstick measuring basic skills and competencies among 15-year olds, PISA definitely does create debates, controversies and impact on education policy in some countries. TIMSS is recognised as a testing organisation whose mission is to create exciting new opportunities for improving the teaching and learning of Mathematics and Science and lastly to assess these two subjects quadrennially, though with a minimum global impact. With changing political agenda, some governments react to the published results with impunity. The UK government however responded over the years by reforming education policy to bring up basic skills levels with par at the European level under conspicuously slipping levels as indicated by 3 successive PISA tests results in 2006, 2009 and 2012.
If we take the ranking of the UK in 2012, and compare it to the ranking it had in 2006 (out of 57 economies) and 2009, it appears that there has been some fluctuation in UK performance:
- Maths performance ranked 24th in 2006, 28th in 2009, and 26th in 2012.
- Reading performance ranked 17th, 25th and 23rd respectively.
- Science performance ranked 14th, 16th and 20th respectively……………………
In his response to the PISA test 2009 results, the UK Minister for Education, Michael Gove in an article in the Times Education Supplement pointed out that a fifth of 15-year olds reached unacceptable levels of literacy and numeracy. Andreas Schleicher argued that investment in the professional development of the current workforce (teachers) would produce quicker results (Stewart, Times Education Supplement, 2011, p.18). A UKAPES mantra which places emphasis on teacher professional development seems to be an anthem sung by big organisations and influential players in the international field of education.
Ultimately UK education reforms were designed and executed across all schools up to key stage 5 triggering in depth changes in curricula, years of compulsory education and assessments framework, particularly for progression into employment, apprenticeships and higher education. Flexibility had become past tense, creating challenges for poorly prepared young people who are required to retake exams in the core subjects of Maths and English Language. PISA has demonstrated that education systems can provide both high-quality instruction and equitable learning opportunities for all, and that they can support academic excellence in an environment that also nurtures students’ well-being. PISA shows what countries are doing to support their students and provides an opportunity for countries to learn from each other.
Opportunities for Africa????????????
Hmm, so what position does Africa take in gauging the skills, abilities and competencies of our dearly beloved youngsters? How do we measure and compare effective schooling systems from community to community, state to state and even country to country? How do we identify the best education systems? What do we assess to identify the capabilities of youths in sustaining themselves for the future and economic participation in the nearest future? Are institutions helping them to reach their full potential or are they subtly neglecting them? Can we create and promote an African-style PISA test? Can we identify, share and celebrate best practice among ourselves? In executing continent wide assessment, would it be a reliable means to produce data to support and inform policy and decision making?
These questions need to be answered by education stakeholders……………………….