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Global Testing: The Malaise of 21st-Century Education
By Nicola Yelland



IN preparation for the 2015 World Education Forum in Incheon, South Korea, the OECD released its global education rankings in mid- May. The results were highly publicized. The BBC headline, for example, ran: “Asia tops global school rankings,”as the countries of East Asia constituted the top five performers.1 Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan were followed by Finland, Estonia, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada.


But little was said about these other systems, nor the features that got them to their respective rankings. No information was provided about the exact score each country achieved, but it has been previously noted that the differences in the top countries’ overall triennial Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores have been small. Neither was any explanation offered about the missing data from China. This was a surprise given the accolades previously accorded to China for what was lauded as Shanghai’s “exemplary” performance in PISA 2012.




The OECD’s education director, Andreas Schleicher, was quoted as saying, “This is the first time we have a truly global scale of the quality of education.” He indicated that the purpose of the global rankings was to provide information to the 76 countries included and to give them the ability to compare their systems with the world’s education leaders. They could then discover their relative strengths and weaknesses, and decide how to improve their schools in order to obtain long-term economic gains.


A UNESCO position paper on the future of education, posted as part of the documentation for the forum, supported the notion that education plays a fundamental role in social and economic development. Quality education systems are promoted as a means of achieving both social and economic well-being. The benefits associated with highly effective education are credited with changing lives, in particular for women and girls, who are regarded as a prime factor in economic prosperity despite being severely disadvantaged in many developing countries.


In this context, it would then seem that the top five East Asian countries have education systems that should be envied and emulated. Further, that they have got it right in terms of producing the highest performing students. Indeed, whenever quality education and high-performance education systems are mentioned, the immediate reaction of governments and media is to think of these five locations, and more recently they have included Shanghai, based solely on performance in high-stakes testing including PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS.2 It begs the question: since when has a test become the sole indicator of a high-quality education system for the 21st century?


Yong Zhao contends that we have created an “illusion of excellence” around PISA.3 For example, in the 2012 results, students in Shanghai were extolled as being two years ahead of Australian students in terms of mathematical abilities. The claims were based solely on the PISA results and it was asserted that this meant that Shanghai students had performed at the “highest level” in tests of knowledge and skills that are essential in modern societies. Accordingly, Shanghai, and by association, China, was given the status of being the world’s model for best practices.


Misleading interpretation


In reality, comparing Shanghai, a city, with a country like Australia, is meaningless and misleading, and to suggest that Shanghai is a proxy for the Chinese education system is disingenuous. Even the city-state of Singapore and the enclave of Hong Kong constitute different contexts for comparison, yet this is never raised in discussions of comparative performances. In fact, within some western countries, like Canada and Australia, the performances of individual states, for example, Ontario, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory, break the monopoly of East Asian countries when making comparisons in the top five or 10, but this data is rarely made available publicly.


Zhao also points out that PISA measures student performance on questions deemed to be “right” in three subjects: mathematics, reading and science. How this translates into being a successful citizen or improving the economy is never discussed, but educators have noted that the successful countries are mainly those that already have a culture of testing, are authoritarian in their structure, have a highly flourishing tutorial school industry, have curricula organised in traditional subject areas and are characterised by rote learning. The OECD counters that the “problem solving” section dismisses the rote learning assertion. Yet, an examination of the types of problems included in the test indicate that they do not pose authentic or practical problems, but rather discipline-based problems that need formulaic responses, which can be taught. A testament to this is evident on the public transport system in Hong Kong when you can frequently observe students with their practice test books cramming for examinations. There are many similar examples (see Figure 1).




Even when the “problem” is related to students ‘ experiences of eating pizza, it is viewed as a mathematical issue (surface area, cost in zeds), and no consideration is made of the fact that you may not be hungry enough to eat the larger pizza — so does that affect whether it is “value for money”? What if you throw half of it away? I would suggest it’s a waste of pizza.


Others have raised issues about the technical flaws of PISA that invalidate its ability to be considered as the quality indicator for a country’s education system. Further, it ignores skills and knowledge from other domains such as the humanities and social sciences including history, geography and the arts; it does not consider personal traits such as creativity, the ability to communicate effectively and collaborate in teams, all of which have been included as skills necessary for being a citizen in these new times. As Zhao so aptly states, “If the United States and the rest of the West are concerned about being overtaken by China, the best solution is to avoid becoming China.”4


Emulating tests


Yet western governments continue to want to emulate Asian education systems simply based on these international high-stakes tests. And Australia has also instigated national testing of literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) at years 3, 5, 7 and 9 in order to ensure that the system has “valuable data to support good teaching and learning, and school improvement.”5


In 2012, the previous Australian government set an agenda for engagement in the Asian Century with a white paper.6 Australia’s roadmap to becoming a more prosperous and resilient nation was accompanied by a strategic plan to engage with Asia in a number of sectors including education. Building capabilities through schools was an integral part of a plan that stipulated: “During the Asian century, the importance of education to Australia’s economic performance will continue to grow. We can only remain a world-beating economy if we also deliver world-class education.”7 A major indicator of a world-class education was for Australia to aspire to be in the top five schooling systems in the world on the basis of the PISA results.


The discussion around global high-stakes testing often attempts to isolate the features of top-performing countries that enable their high scores. They focus on school variables, such as teacher quality, curriculum, assessment and pedagogical issues and more detailed (secondary) analyses of the data derived from the tested populations around demographic issues, such as gender and social class. There is also data regarding education funding by governments, not including private tutorial schools, measures of equity, commentary about teacher preparation and the professional lives of teachers. There is little discussion about the consistency of educational policy in East Asian nations in which five-year plans can be made and followed up on, without deconstructing what has come before. Hong Kong, for example, has implemented a change strategy since 2000 with its “Learning to Learn” focus that has been consistently built upon with subsequent initiatives.


Singapore started even earlier, in 1998, when it realised it needed to reform its schools to “foster creative thinking and entrepreneurial spirit among the young.”8 In fact, these statements about the desired outcomes of education are clear and concise and rarely replicated in the West. The overall concept was “Thinking schools, learning nation” and it has carefully evolved since this time in a coherent and designed way, to now encapsulate “Teach less, learn more.” Not only do these systems have long-term policy plans that have been implemented and mandated by governments that don’t change on a regular basis, like in Australia, but also, importantly, education is viewed as an investment not a cost. Further, there is a culture that believes in the value of education and an ethic of hard work that enables the systematic implementation of policies in a systematic manner. This cultural aspect is under-researched in academic work.


It has been noted, for example, by Heckman (2005), the Nobel Prize-winning economist, that most of the effects that correlate with strong student performance are related to out of school variables.9 This was supported by Goldhaber, Brewer and Anderson (1999), who maintained that background factors account for 60 per cent of student achievement in school.10 We still don’t know the precise ways in which such factors impact on performance in schools, but we do know that tests that require simple, factual answers that can be studied for in a diligent and systematic way take many hours of dedication and practice.


An Asian bias?


This suits the Asian systems. China in particular has a long history of tests, with imperial examinations (Keju) often regarded as the fifth great invention of China, coming into being to select civil servants in 605 AD. Yet, as Yong Zhao points out, the great inventions failed to turn China into a modern and scientific nation because the system was too rigid. They did not allow creativity to flow but rather stuck to predictable and controllable scenarios in the context of an authoritarian regime. Such limitations and control make the system well suited to being successful in high-stakes testing, and the narrow definition of accomplishment and obedience to the right answers limits individual potential. Zhao notes the “power lies in the ability to homogenize.”11


Suffice to say, the inter-relationships between the various factors in education systems are complex, and Finland’s presence in the top five until recently has confounded the issues, since its schooling system is the total opposite of everything in East Asia.


How to excel?


What is the way forward? We all want excellence in our school systems, but it’s our definition of what it looks like and how we measure it that makes the situation complex. The rhetoric around the purpose of education would seem to indicate that our goal should be to create systems that prepare students to transition into society and play a valuable role. As Dr Martin Luther King said, “The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society.”12


In the West, we seem to have forgotten about the concept of education for the public good and perpetually talk about the costs associated with providing schools for the 21st century while providing a system more suited to the Industrial Revolution. Policies that focus on the basics — reading, writing and arithmetic — are more easily measured than enabling students to realise their creative abilities, work collaboratively to solve authentic problems and being able to communicate effectively.


We have used the rhetoric of “closing the gap” as shorthand to justify more explicit teaching about facts and learning supposedly basic skills. As a result, those students who don’t do well on tests are subjected to more of these regimes, while those who are already good at them are able to conduct investigations and explore ideas creatively and collaboratively. Are we indeed expanding the gap? It may be the case that the latter group are provided with more opportunities to become fluent in using 21st century skills. The countries who perform well at PISA are often not those whose patents and innovations are changing the modern world. Where are the Nobel Prize-winners coming from? Which countries are doing the best on global indexes of innovation? Education involves a complex set of decisions and we should be wary of equating “world class” with the results of a test that only considers three domains of knowledge.


We would do well to ponder the words of Nicholas Negroponte in 1995 when he stated: "Let me point out the heavy price paid in those countries for requiring young minds to master this apparent font of knowledge. Children in Japan are more or less dead on arrival when they enter the university system. Over the next four years they’ll feel like marathon runners asked to go rock climbing at the finish line. Worse, those young people didn’t learn a thing about learning and, for the most part, have had the love of it whipped out of them."13


Nicola Yelland is Professor of Education, College of Education, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. She can be contacted at





2 PISA: Program for International School Assessment. TIMSS: Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. PIRLS: Progress in International Reading Literacy Study.

3 Zhao, Y (2014). Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon? San Francisco: Jossey Bass.

4 Zhao, op. cit., p.10.

5 NAPLAN website,

6 Australian Government. (2012). Australia in the Asian Century.

7 Australian Government, op. cit., p.164

8 Singapore Ministry of Education (1998).

9 Heckman, J. J. and A. Krueger, B., Eds. (2005). Inequality in America: What Role for Human Capital Policies? Cambridge, MA., MIT Press

10 Goldhaber, D., Brewer, D.J., & Anderson, D.J. (1999). “A Three-Way Error Components Analysis of Educational Productivity.” Education Economics, 7(3), 199-208.

11 Zhao, op. cit., p.130.


13 Negroponte, N. (1994). “Learning by Doing: Don’t Dissect a Frog, Build It.” Wired. 2.07/negroponte.html

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    There is a growing emphasis on standardized educational testing results represented by the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which consistently shows Asian countries in the lead. But emulating systems based on rote learning and narrow definitions of learning, warns Nicola Yelland, could move global education in the wrong direction.
    Published: Jun 30, 2015
    About the author

    Nicola Yelland is Professor of Education, College of Education, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia.

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