©UNESCO/José Gabriel Ruiz Lembo

What are we learning? PISA will cast a wider net post-2015

©UNESCO/José Gabriel Ruiz Lembo

As part of its contribution to the post-2015 education framework, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) proposes to enhance its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to make it more relevant to developing countries. These ideas, outlined in a new OECD brochure, are set out here by Michael Davidson, Michael Ward and Alejandro Gomez Palma of the OECD.

Although large numbers of children have been able to enter school over the past two decades, the latest Education for All Global Monitoring Report finds that many young people— especially the disadvantaged — are still leaving school without the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in society and find decent jobs. This learning crisis has led to a general consensus that the post-2015 development goals should focus more strongly on the quality of learning and should be expanded to include education at the secondary level.

There is no doubt that learning, not schooling, should be the main goal of education policies, yet the challenge is how to measure learning. While it is straightforward to set targets for – and then measure – the number of children enrolling in and completing school each year, assessing the extent to which learners across all the countries of the world have acquired a specific set of competencies and knowledge is extremely difficult. Three fundamental questions need to be answered:

  • How do we set universal learning goals that can be measured and tracked over time?
  • How do we identify and collect the evidence needed to measure progress towards these goals?
  • What targets can be defined to guide progress towards these goals?

To help the global education and development communities respond to these challenges, the UNESCO Institute for Statistics (UIS) and the Center for Universal Education (CUE) at the Brookings Institution have established the Learning Metrics Task Force, which brings together experts to develop recommendations on internationally comparable learning standards, metrics and implementation practices. In particular, the Task Force is looking at how current international, regional and cross-national assessments of learning can be used to measure progress towards internationally agreed goals. UNESCO, with UNICEF, is also leading the Post-2015 Global Thematic Consultation on Education and is holding a global meeting in Dakar, Senegal, on March 18 and 19 involving member states, youth groups, the private sector, civil society and UN agencies to confirm the education priorities for the post-2015 framework.

The OECD is well placed to contribute to this effort, based on its experience with the highly collaborative Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). First conducted in 2000, PISA provides comprehensive and rigorous international assessments of learning outcomes (primarily in mathematics, reading and science). Every three years, about half a million 15-year-olds from around 70 countries are tested under the PISA programme. PISA also collects student, school and system-level contextual information, which allows it to identify factors associated with quality and equity in schooling outcomes.

PISA has not only helped to identify some of the world’s top performing and most equitable education systems; results have also shown that diverse countries have managed to raise the quality of educational outcomes substantially, despite starting from different points. Twenty-eight low-income and middle-income countries have participated in PISA. Countries such as Brazil, Peru and Vietnam have shown how valuable PISA can be by using the surveys to set quality-of-learning benchmarks and monitoring progress against these over time.

The OECD now plans to enhance the policy relevance of PISA for a broader set of developing countries through the PISA for Development initiative. The initiative will develop enhanced PISA survey instruments that are more relevant to developing countries but that produce scores that are on the same scales as the main PISA assessment. This initiative will enable future PISA cycles to offer developing countries more tailored and relevant policy analysis and insights. Planning for the 2015 cycle is under way and numerous developing countries that had not participated in previous PISA cycles have expressed interest in taking part.

PISA could provide significant benefits to the post-2015 global learning agenda:

  • A single reference point against which to rigorously gauge progress towards targets for educational quality and equity.
  • A robust measure of progress allowing all countries – regardless of their starting points – to set targets for improvement that are referenced to common international goals.
  • Credible and comparable results, as PISA requires that participating countries follow common technical, institutional and administrative standards.
  • An opportunity for participating countries to improve their ability to assess learning.

The OECD is engaging in the post-2015 forums convened by UN agencies such as UNESCO and UNICEF. In supporting the post-2015 process, the OECD aims to help establish a set of measurable, globally relevant education goals that are focused on learning, and that enable all countries to set meaningful targets that can be tracked over time.

For more information, please contact Michael.Ward@oecd.org or Pablo.Zoido@oecd.org.

Photo: © UNESCO/ José Gabriel Ruiz Lembo



  1. Using PISA globally will provide good measurements for student learning achievement goals, but it’s a lagging indicator. It’s the last measurement that indicates progress is being made towards the goals. For real progress monitoring and early interventions, leading indicators also need to be measured.

    Looking at education as a system, changes in the education processes are the drivers for learning outcomes measured by PISA. If we establish a model for those education processes, then we can measure the implementation of the process model as a leading indicator for higher student learning achievement. Where the PISA informs what should be learned and what has been learned, the process model informs how to build an education system to achieve the learning and progress towards implementing a high achievement system.

    We need both PISA and an education process model.

    1. I suppose the real difficulty is that each country is its own system and taht what works well in one context will not work as well in another.

      1. Anne, you’re exactly right. At the operations level, every country has different processes to achieve learning. For my proposal, that’s accepted as normal. What I propose is measuring the extent that managed processes are used in the education system – process maturity. This follows the practices of quality initiatives that have been universally applied.

        For implementing the measurement, a process maturity rubric is defined to assess multiple factors (i.e. content objectives, student placement, teacher professional development, parent engagement …). Then, process maturity is measured through a review of artifacts associated with the existing educational operations against the rubric. When used with the maturity measurement, the rubric becomes a roadmap for achieving high quality student learning outcomes.

        The process maturity measurement tells you where you are going and what to expect as an outcome. As a leading indicator, it seems more appropriate to drive improvement than today’s dominant lagging indicator based on assessment measures that only tells you where you have been. I think we need both.

Leave a Reply