Des Griffin

Why condemning international tests is a distraction, and what we really should be worried about

Governments all around the world seem to be influenced by the international rankings of students by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Australia is no different. Famously, in 2012 our then prime minister, Julia Gillard, set a goal for our students to rank in the world’s “top 5 by 2025”

Increasingly, educators have been questioning the validity of these rankings and asking why policy makers pay so much attention to them. One critique getting a lot of attention is by Stanford University’s Professor Martin Carnoy who concluded recently the OECD’s Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings are misleading.

According to Carnoy they are misleading because of (1) differences between countries in students’ access to resources (2) the validity of using PISA results for international comparisons, (3) larger than acknowledged test score errors and (4) the Shanghai educational system scores, held up as a model for the rest of the world, are based on a subset of students that is not representative of the Shanghai student population as a whole. Carnoy was speaking specifically about the PISA results and the US, but his opinions would also be valid for Australia.

Tests do distort policy and practice. Most educators, and many parents, these days understand that. There is no evidence that standardised tests, or any league tables generated as a result, improve student achievement!

But there are other lessons aimed at the US coming from PISA rankings that perhaps the US, and other countries such as Australia, should be paying attention to. How many times does it have to be pointed out that “socio-economic disadvantage has a notable impact on student performance”? Also PISA 2009 asserted local funding of education exacerbates inequality and “may be the single most important factor for the US.” But it seems impossible for Americans to come to grips with these findings.

Meanwhile here in Australia the divide in schooling is growing. The too widespread entrenched inequality of educational outcomes and opportunities are further exacerbated by economic trends. Tom Bentley and Ciannon Cazaley from Victoria University’s Mitchell Institute say “As a result, there is a mismatch between the learning needs of students and schools, and the current capabilities of education systems”.

I contend that, while I agree there is much about OECD rankings that are wrong, condemning these international tests is a distraction.

Yes there are problems with PISA

Of the four reasons given by Carnoy as to why the PISA scores are misleading the first two, about different access and validity, can be simply agreed with.

But PISA Reports are not just analyses of test scores! Conclusions drawn from test data and information supplied by school principals agree with many other reports. Using test scores to construct league tables frequently ignores variances attached to the means and media analyses and political responses often show less than adequate understanding of basic statistics or of the education literature. Carnoy also details the unreliable way in which the Shanghai sample was constructed by PISA.

The important point is this: were the results from Shanghai, Japan or Singapore to be ignored, the conclusions which can be reasonably drawn from the remaining data are still a challenge to the practices adopted by US and other countries participating in PISA.

Indeed ignoring international tests altogether would still leave the conclusions from other studies which show the positive contribution to school student achievement by school leadership which supports teacher quality, demanding curriculum, rich experiences, attention to those having difficulty, socioeconomic background and diversity of the class and community relations.

Carnoy recommends changes in the interpretation of results of international tests: relating changes over time to family academic resource (FAR) factors. As well micro-data made available to allow further analysis, independent academics appointed to PISA’s decision-making board. And last, policymakers should focus more on differences in achievement gains between the US states, rather than between the US and other countries.


Bad education reform in the US is not the result of reacting to OECD rankings

The practices of educational administrators, politicians and corporate donors to education reform in the US are not based on international test scores and analyses. They are derived from ideological beliefs about “the market” and how people behave. The private sector is considered good, public sector bad, government intrusion into the community is excessive and inhibits self-reliance. The beliefs are financial incentives drive superior performance, competition improves quality and choice (of school) is a democratic right.

In this scenario of course teachers’ unions are seen as very bad and that their influence needs to be removed. Rich donors, whose donations cost public money because of tax offsets (as pointed out by Diane Ravitch in her comprehensive criticism of US education policy, “The Death and Life of the American School System”) relentlessly pursue that objective through campaigns for elections to school boards.

None of these beliefs are based on valid research any more than is climate change denialism or Bishop Usher’s views on the origin of the Earth. To blame PISA is at best a distraction.

The main response by US authorities in recent times to assertions about student achievement has been the creation of more charter schools, independently run though publicly, and privately, financed. Recently the Common Core State Standards Initiative which makes testing easier has dominated reform. All as part of “Race to the Top” endorsed by President Obama and overseen by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The failure of charter schools has been well demonstrated, David Zyngier describing them as a flawed idea and there is a revolt against Common Core Standards led by Diane Ravitch.

In most countries educational performance by students attending independent schools is due mainly to student selection and retention. When controlled for socioeconomic factors any superior performance compared with students from public schools disappears. More money spent on those schools delivers relatively little extra gain. The very important University of Queensland study by Son Nghiem and colleagues revealed that what mattered was a suite of factors relating to the home environment.


Inequality and education

Carnoy admits the importance of the home environment and the resources made available by parents. He points out education analysts in the US “pay close attention to the level and trends of test scores and their relationship with socioeconomic factors, that is inequality”. Indeed they do: David Berliner, in his Letter to the President, Diane Ravitch, Jean Anyon and many others have shown policies and practices in the US do not address poverty’s impact: US practices aren’t like those of successful countries.

Finnish teachers would not stay long in US schools according to Finnish expert Pasi Sahlberg in “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?”.


Education Achievement and Economic Performance

Carnoy points to the study by the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek and others which argued that the average national math test scores are the single best predictor of national economic growth, at least for the years 1960-2010. The poor US student test scores therefor threaten US economic superiority!

The seeming contradiction arising from the economic success of the US (as measured by GDP and similar metrics) and Nobel prizes seem to deny this prospect. Diane Ravitch argued there was no relationship between test scores and economic productivity. Researcher and writer on education reform Norman Eng pointed out that learning in school was narrow, detached and contrived whereas work, especially highly skilled jobs, was active, cross disciplinary and “out-of-the-box”.

There is indeed a poor relationship between test scores and wages, and rewarding teachers on the basis of their student’s scores likely misdirects resources according to Nobel prize-winner James Heckman and colleagues.

But there is more. Michael Teitelbaum’s said his research shows claims of looming problems due to a shortage of quality graduates in STEM subjects is a myth. US high tech companies employ large numbers of foreign students with US earned PhDs on H-1 visas who tend to be locked into jobs at lower salaries. They aren’t smarter than available US workers and do not bring talents not otherwise available. They are just cheaper! They register fewer patents and their PhDs are from less prestigious universities.

In any event, as reviews by Simon Marginson, now of University College London, and Director of American Studies at Columbia University Andrew Delbanco, have recently pointed out, too often universities do not enrol students on merit but choose them from more prestigious colleges: access is decreasing as quality of teaching declines and fees increase. Fewer graduates means higher salaries and widening economic divergence.


Putting PISA in its place

International programs like PISA are a snapshot of achievement in tests by a sample of 15 year olds to questions about their comprehension of writing, reading, mathematics and science. Why not accept them for that! Americans obsess over their ranking in the world and use any excuse to deny the contrary: consider health care. Just as well they don’t play Rugby Union.

Advantaged families in many countries also obsess over test scores achieved by the schools their children attend or might attend and spend huge sums of money moving house to be near “better” schools. They devote time to pushing their children to complete excessive amounts of homework and engage in so much other activity that they have little time for simply developing the ability to form relationships with others.

Standardised tests pander to the myth of accountability. They diminish the enhancement of creativity and give undue weight to a few subjects notwithstanding the importance of those. But privileging literacy and numeracy marginalises other skills. Large numbers of people who had difficulty with basic subjects or even the school experience in general have gone on to be successful in science, the arts and other domains. Some were dyslexic and some autistic, but often were discriminated against at school.


Here’s what we really should be worried about

The US is a country where education researchers contribute high-quality research, which most US policy makers ignore. What is also ignored is early childhood, a time of far greater importance than school years, a time when inequality has most impact on families and therefore on children. The implications continue to be ignored in the US, to an extent in Australia.

In Australia, privileging independent schools wastes taxpayer money, disadvantaged children in poor suburbs and country areas suffer poorly supported teachers and inadequate resources. So do Indigenous children who in the Northern Territory are subject to Direct Instruction, their own languages are marginalised and boarding schools are pitched as the solution. Inequality increases.

Meanwhile Prime Minister Turnbull wonders whether we can afford to fully implement the Gonski reforms whilst asserting that Australia is a fair country, and Opposition leader Shorten notes weekend penalty rates mean parents can afford to send their children to private schools!


des180907Des Griffin is Gerard Krefft Fellow at the Australian Museum, Sydney where he was director from 1976 to 1998. He graduated from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Tasmania in marine biology. He is interested in museums and arts organisations, the environment and science, organisational dynamics, especially leadership and governance and in education. He was founding president of Museums Australia, the single association representing museum people from 1993 to 1996. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in June 2014. He writes at

Des is the author of Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity (Springer, 2014). The book and individual chapters can be downloaded from the Springer site which contains abstracts of the chapters. The book can be purchased from the site or from booksellers such as Fishpond.

Current school reform agenda undermines intelligence and creativity in schools

Education should aim to achieve the enhancement of intelligence. However, current education reform action is driven by narrow perceptions of how to make students work-ready. Creativity, an essential element of intelligence, is being marginalised in schools, particularly in Australian schools.

The reform agenda

As far as reform goes, schools are the focus of most of the debate. It is what goes on in schools, and who is doing what, that interests us. The teacher is almost universally identified as the most important agent influencing student achievement within schools. So we struggle with questions like, how can better teachers be recruited and rewarded and do teachers know enough anyway?

Overriding everything when it comes to schools these days is the demand for accountability. It is seen as a democratic right! Somehow we seem reduced to debating whether public schools can deliver, or independent schools are better.

Then there is standardised testing. No matter where a child is taught, standardised testing is rife. With this, in some countries, comes merit pay, linking teacher advancement and rates of pay to the test scores of students.

Getting rid of teacher unions is part of the reform agenda around the world, and actually acted upon in some countries. And no matter where the school is geographically and financially, any claims for more funds are met by assertions from politicians and commentators that it is the targeting of the funding (allocative efficiency) which is important, not just more money.

Almost all the above are irrelevant when it comes to schools.

As I see it merit pay makes no difference to student achievement or teacher behaviour, extra funding and smaller classes make a difference for disadvantaged students and union bashing is political.

Standardised testing

Let’s get back to standardised testing. I believe it is, to put it mildly, unhelpful. It doesn’t address the main reasons for poor achievement such as the socioeconomic status of the family and features such as remoteness and enrolment of “minorities” and Indigenous children.

The socioeconomic level (SES) of the family influences what the child brings to school on day one and the opportunities for out of school activities, including study at home. The average SES of children in the classes, and the school, affects teaching standards, curriculum, provision of creative activities and more. At school the background of the children further influences achievement: a disadvantaged child in a class of high SES children can end up as much as two years ahead of a similar student in a low SES class. Homework and tutoring can be important but are not universally critical elements.

Are independent schools better?

Emeritus Professor Alan Reid recently summarised all the flaws in the arguments for independent schools, and so have many other advocates, including Diane Ravitch in the US and Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools. Where independent schools achieve better results it is usually because they enrol already bright students.

School autonomy

School autonomy, the level of which independent schools in Australia currently enjoy more than government schools, is important in curriculum development and assessment. However autonomy in administrative functions like budgets and staff recruitment is not useful, although this is the path government schools are increasingly heading down in Australia. Making schools a business distorts their purpose and outcome.

Disadvantage in our schools

Confronting disadvantage is vital. That is what the Gonski Panel concluded. In countries where average student achievement is high extra help is given where needed and every student is believed able to succeed; the gap between high and low socioeconomic advantage is low. The OECD through its PISA program has been saying this for years! The US has done almost nothing about it but has continued standardised testing, supported a uniform curriculum – “Common Core” – which makes testing easier – and supported charter schools! It is a rich curriculum which is important, not whether it is the same in every school.

Disadvantage may include intellectual, physical, ethnicity, language and geographic remoteness, sometimes gender. (It used to be that girls didn’t do science and math.) Schools in remote areas in Australia lack resources and are often staffed by less well qualified teachers who stay a relatively short time at the school.

In Australia there is argument about teaching Indigenous children in their first language. There is a similar argument in some US states. Language is identity! Learning in one’s own language first is a prerequisite to learning in other languages. For Australian Indigenous children there are further problems flowing from poverty, housing and nutrition. Sending older children to boarding school separates them from family and country. A history of deprivation and worse, not yet confronted, further holds back Indigenous student achievement.

Leading educator Pasi Sahlberg points out that reforms in Finland from 1980 started out to achieve equality of opportunity, not to be the best in the world. In Finland teachers are respected and enjoy good working conditions.

There is some resistance in some quarters to recognising the significance of disadvantage and funding. Some US authorities focus on external tutoring as a reason why children in Asian schools, who have recently participated in PISA, do well. This misses the fact that many Asian schools also attend to student engagement and give special support for children experiencing difficulty. In the US there is even condemnation of PISA tests: they are alleged to have driven the imposition of standardised tests. But sovereign countries determine the use of tests!

In Australia NSW leads the way in adopting a funding method that acknowledges the simple truth that disadvantaged children cost more to educate properly.

Importance of the teaching in schools

In the classroom the way the teacher teaches (the pedagogy) is vital in contributing to superior student learning. Learning is an experience: that was shown decades ago by John Dewey. New Zealand researcher Graham Nuthall wrote some years ago, “Students interpret classroom activities in relation to their own goals, interests, and background knowledge, and they extract the information that is relevant to them… It is this ongoing process of making sense of and managing their participation in classroom activities that changes their knowledge, skills, and motivation, and creates the link between classroom activities and learning.” In other words simply emphasising content is not enough.

Researchers like Jonathan Osborne (Stanford University) and Lauren Resnick (University of Pittsburgh) talk of argumentation and collaborative discourse, explaining concepts, challenges, reasoning, being held accountable. Of course the teacher should be competent in the knowledge of what they are teaching. The advances in pedagogy build on that.

Pioneering studies of formative evaluation reveal the gains from use of devices like coloured lollipops given to students then selected at random to answer questions and electronic whiteboards on which answers are written to be shown to the student next to them. Formative assessment is assessment for learning, not assessment of learning. Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind’s emphasis on facts is the destruction of learning and any future interest in it.

What we need for our schools

We need “joined up” solutions to improve schools, strategies which address physical health including nutrition, urban planning which ensures adequate space for children to play and households with sufficient space for private study and work-life balance which ensures adequate opportunity for family activities. All these have a vast influence on the child’s learning.

Minister Christopher Pyne’s assertion that the present system is not broken is wrong; one writer compared the funding with different railway gauges in each state. The Gonski Panel recognised this. Most of the money presently funds better performing students and richer schools where it makes not much difference!

The rankness of international rankings

Recent international programs which test student knowledge and literacy in reading, mathematics and science have been a source of confusion in some countries. Statistical differences have been smothered and mere rank has focused politicians and others on competitive position of countries. A number of Asian countries and cities, whose students have performed very well, have entered recently. The focus on Australian students’ rank ignores the statistical meaning and the clamour ignores fluctuations by many countries. The results of problem solving tests in PISA 2012 shows that simply ascribing the relative performance to “learning by rote” does not explain the outcomes of Asian students.

School leadership

Schools are special but they are not entirely different from any other organisation. However, many assertions about them are mostly ignorant of what we know of organisations. So it is not surprising to find leadership by the principal to be critical as shown by longitudinal studies in south Chicago, by Tasmania’s Bill Mulford and the knowledge of many teachers everywhere. Teachers are supported in their teaching strategies and must set high standards; cooperation is promoted. Leadership builds community relationships. Financial control is not the important factor anywhere as shown by PISA.

Where to with school reform?

Everyone responsible for education reform has an obligation to understand gains from relevant fields of inquiry. This can be a challenge to the tendency to gravitate towards those views which accord with previous beliefs. Politicians and the media have a specially important role. As Pasi Sahlberg said recently it is important to build on evidence. “Without data you are just another person with an opinion.”

If our attempts at school reform in Australia are to be successful we need to look more closely at the evidence, ignore political manipulation and focus on the end goal – the enrichment of the intelligence of our children.



Des Griffin is Gerard Krefft Fellow at the Australian Museum, Sydney where he was director from 1976 to 1998. He graduated from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Tasmania in marine biology. He is interested in museums and arts organisations, the environment and science, organisational dynamics, especially leadership and governance and in education. He was founding president of Museums Australia, the single association representing museum people from 1993 to 1996. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in June 2014. He writes at



Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity (Springer, 2014) is available at the publisher’s website. The book and individual chapters can be downloaded from the site which contains abstracts of the chapters. The book can be purchased from the site or from booksellers such as Fishpond.Reviewers can obtain a copy free from the publisher.

The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity in Australia

I believe the most important outcomes of education for children today are the enhancement of their individual intelligence and the enrichment of their creative capacity. These are the things that underpin a child’s potential success and wellbeing in life.  But if we are going to get such outcomes for our children we need to start early.

The trouble is we seem to be winding back the extra support schools need, especially support for disadvantaged children – including those with learning difficulties and health problems as well as children with language backgrounds other than English – and especially for children in their early years.

In Australia there’s a war going on. The recommendations of the David Gonski chaired panel on school funding that would give vital support to our most disadvantaged schools has been overturned by Minister Christopher Pyne.  Reform has stalled. Things that should be being implemented and introduced to help our children are either not happening or not getting the funding and attention they should.

Education doesn’t start at school.

It starts as soon as the child is born. A vast amount of research in recent years, not only on learning in the very young, shows the significant impacts of economic circumstances on the physical, emotional and intellectual environments experienced then. Disadvantage starts in the very earliest years, in fact before.

The greatest development of the brain occurs in earliest years. Brain research is now one of the most important areas of science after quantum physics: the brain is plastic, exercise stimulates development. Psychology and social behaviour including behavioural economics amplifies that understanding.

We now know that self control is a better predictor of later success in life than IQ scores and self control is learned at home in the early years.

In their early years most young children are astonishingly creative and tolerant of ambiguity. Their play reflects the world as they have observed it and can interpret it very literally even proposing in games that someone can be a mother but not have any children.

Views of the very young child have changed radically.

Professor Alison Gopnik at the University of California, Berkeley, observes, “By the time they’re 2-1/2 … young children seem to be able to discriminate between purely conventional roles and genuinely moral ones.” In fact Gopnik says, we now know that, in many ways, “young children are actually smarter, more imaginative, more caring and even more conscious than adults“.

In Australia COAG (Council of Australian Governments) in 2009 endorsed a National Early Childhood Development Strategy, Investing in the Early Years. It aimed “to improve outcomes for all children and importantly, reduce inequalities in outcomes between groups of children… Specific outcomes relate to improved health, cognitive and social development leading to improved transition to school and improved educational, employment, health and wellbeing outcomes.”

Investing in the Early Years noted advances in neurobiology and related areas which have increased understanding of the importance of early childhood. It also recognised the critical role of families: “the strategy seeks outcomes for families related to workforce participation and engagement of parents in understanding the importance of early childhood development and in supporting their child’s development.”

Areas of concern noted by COAG included low birth weight, especially amongst Indigenous children, the lowest of OECD countries and double that of non-Indigenous children. Obesity and diabetes, disability, social emotional and behavioural issues and child abuse, were also noted.

National Partnership Agreements on Indigenous Early Childhood Development, Preventive Health, a National Quality agenda for education and care and national workforce initiatives to improve quality and supply of early childhood education and care workforce are among relevant agreements and plans.

Will all this continue?

Children of high SES families enjoy advantages in their physical and emotional environment.

Children of advantaged families enjoy stimulating physical and emotional experiences from an early age. They are encouraged to discuss issues with their parents and develop language skills. Intellectual stimulation as well as by relationships with primary carers, especially the mother, and physical health are critical. Participation in creative and sporting activities, learning other languages and music also contribute significantly.

Not in disadvantaged homes. Parents are often absent at work, or maybe it is a one parent home. Physical surroundings including play areas are limited. Children will not be expected to express their own opinions when young. Involvement in crime, substance abuse and school absenteeism can follow, sometimes prison and further crime.

Around 50 per cent of educational achievement at school is contributed by what the child brings to school. The return on investment in terms of educational achievement, eventual employment and relative freedom from crime is substantial: there is no downside risk. Early childhood intervention, like parental leave, is not child minding and ought not to be justified as a labour market assist!

The COAG strategy provides for all children to receive a full year of preschool in the last year before starting school.

In 2010 Australia ranked 34th of 38 OECD countries in early childhood education enrolment rates, though the data left out some information from the private sector.

The gains from strong supports for development of the child from earliest years show up in later behaviour and success in adult life. The gains from intervention are greatest for disadvantaged children in preschools staffed by qualified teachers; children looked after by relatives or friends and, importantly, children already advantaged gain much less.

In many European countries preschool is near universal and government funded. In New York the new Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to introduce universal preschool (and after school programs for adolescents) to be funded by tax increases on the wealthy. He is yet to overcome the resistance of Governor Cuomo and the State legislature to increased taxes! President Obama has recently spoken strongly of the importance of early childhood intervention. Universal preschool is a feature of many European countries.

In Australia we still do not have universal preschooling for our four year olds.

Trevor Cobbold of Save Our Schools noted in 2013 that only 71% of children aged four attended a pre-school; there is huge variation across Australia in children attending and hours of attendance. The review by the University of New South Wales’ Professor Deborah Brennan of the situation in New South Wales found improvements and challenges, especially in remote areas. Education Minister Piccoli announced in 2012 support for remote schools, including those with high Indigenous enrolment, and for teaching “in language”: moreover, if nearby pre-schools did not exist, the government would build one.

We need to have a clear plan to develop creativity.

Successful education outcomes result from attention to basic issues of human rights and what characterises humanity, a natural curiosity, the incorporation of new experiences into previous understandings, a capacity to question, a wish to advance one’s self, to be involved in meaningful relationships and worthwhile pursuits.

Intelligence enhanced by effective learning opens a vast and continually exciting world experienced through all the senses. Creativity gives new ways of seeing, hearing and feeling the world, understanding new meanings.

Education reform ignorant of new knowledge leads to an unwinding of intelligence and the marginalisation of creativity. We all suffer the consequences.

des180907   Des Griffin

Des Griffin is Gerard Krefft Fellow at the Australian Museum, Sydney where he was director from 1976 to 1998. He graduated from Victoria University of Wellington and the University of Tasmania in marine biology. He is interested in museums and arts organisations, the environment and science, organisational dynamics, especially leadership and governance and in education. He was founding president of Museums Australia, the single association representing museum people from 1993 to 1996. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1990 and elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of New South Wales in June 2014. He writes at

Education Reform: The Unwinding of Intelligence and Creativity (Springer, 2014) is available at the publisher’s website. The book and individual chapters can be downloaded from the site which contains abstracts of the chapters. The book can be purchased from the site or from booksellers such as Fishpond.Reviewers can obtain a copy free from the publisher.