But what Benchmark do we use?

And will current reforms deliver improved performance?

IPPR report looks at International Benchmarking


The IPPR think tank has just published a report on International Benchmarking.

This Government has said that we should compare our education system with the best in the world. It a good idea in principle. While PISA is the most widely used international assessment, and is favoured by this government,  there are a number of different studies that can be used for benchmarking performance. Each study has a slightly different design and focus. None of them is perfect and  each has its critics. Our pupils rate  better in some, than in   others, ie OK in TIMMS not so good in PISA,  but the problem, to an extent, with all of them is whether they are accurately comparing like with like-ie apples to apples. And they measure slightly different things. PISA tends to measure students ability to apply knowledge to problem solve. TIMMS, their grasp of facts.  As the IPPR report says ‘The sampling methods of international assessments have been criticised for being  too small to reliably judge a whole system’s performance, and for being open to  countries ‘gaming’ the sample by excluding pupils who are likely to perform poorly  (Hormann 2009, Mortimore 2009) and only provide system-level data, which makes it hard to apply the lessons at a more local level.It is also the case that ‘Country-specific factors – including the nature of curriculum, testing and teaching –  can mean some pupils are better prepared for the format of international assessments than others’.

So what are the benchmarks?

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) PISA is run by the OECD and takes place every three years. It is a sample survey that assesses 15–16 year olds in three areas: literacy, maths and science

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) Run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement, TIMMS assesses 9–10 year olds and 13–14 year olds on their skills in both maths and science. TIMMS takes place every three years and more than 50 countries participate. It focuses on curriculum and as a result tends to test pupil’s content knowledge rather than their ability to apply it.

Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) PIRLS assesses 9–10 year old pupils on their reading literacy. Using a similar design to TIMMS, it focuses on assessing their knowledge and content of the curriculum. It takes place every five years and there are currently 35 countries participating. PIRLS is also run by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement.

UNICEF -Child Well-Being Indicators

UNICEF have developed a broader set of wellbeing indicators that include health and safety, education, family and peer relationships, attitudes, behaviours and risks. Many of the education indicators are drawn from PISA and TIMMS and therefore do not represent new assessments. However they are brought together with the other indicators of wellbeing to give a more holistic assessment. comparing like with like.

The IPPR report  wants us to develop a more considered  and systematic approach to using international comparisons in the English school system.  While international comparisons have been used in England in the past, they have not  involved systematic benchmarking.  It says the first step in this direction is Ofqual’s work to benchmark English qualifications to ensure they are ‘world class’ (Ofqual 2011).

Other countries have developed more comprehensive approaches to benchmarking. Broadly speaking, there are three ways in which other countries have incorporated  systematic international comparisons into their school systems:

Linking national assessments to international tests such as PISA

Setting national targets to raise a country’s score or rank on international assessments

Establishing institutions that can systematically apply learning from overseas into the national context

Trying to learn from the world’s top-performing school systems is a welcome move, and  the report says ‘ it raises thorny questions over how the government can ensure schools reflect  these lessons in their day-to-day practice. It is not clear how the use of international benchmarking will fit with the government’s desire for schools to be ‘self-improving’, with  parents and teachers driving changes in the system’

Selecting the most appropriate  benchmark  is challenging . And, crucially, once you choose your benchmark-in our case its seems to be PISA- you need to develop a programme that secures you the desired outcomes against the chosen benchmark  This report reminds us that  ‘ Lessons from overseas are only useful if they can inform the English system. An institutional framework needs to be developed that allows these lessons to inform the day-to-day practice of schools in England.’

One problem, of course  is  that politicians have to demonstrate improvement ,so there is a tendency to cherry pick and use results out of context, to put a positive spin on them.

Looking at what PISA measures, are we confident that on-going education  reforms will   mean our children will perform better in  the next PISA tests?PISA , as we have said,  tests students ability to apply facts to problem solve, rather than simply measuring their  ability  to memorise facts.  Our system of testing is widely believed to encourage rote learning of facts rather than  using facts to solve problems So  what element in the current  reforms will be the main driver to deliver improved performance in PISA tests? The Ebacc,  or the envisaged , more traditional, core curriculum?

IPPR Report-Benchmarking the English School System-Against the Best in the World-Jonathan Clifton; July 2011



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