Saturday, July 15, 2017

Why Is Kiddie PISA a Thing

Every so often the OECD throws a big fat standardized test (the PISA) at fifteen-year-olds from a bunch of nations that have different cultures and speak different languages and then use the results to stack rank those nations, leading to a paroxysm of pearl clutching and teeth gnashing over the results. And it's always good for some trauma because as long as the test has existed, the United States has ranked, to be generous, in the mediocre middle.

What could possibly make the whole PISA business even better?

How about giving a computer-based PISA to five year olds!

That'll be quite enough of that, you little slacker.

Over in the UK they're about to attempt a 300-student pilot of this extraordinarily hare-brained idea. And the US is supposedly also in on this, though Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium (among others) have said they will not be participating. Other reports are that the OECD is looking for three to six countries to play along.

The pilot will involve around 300 children, and uses games and stories on tablet computers to map pupils’ early capabilities – which will then be linked to educational performance at 15 through the international PISA tests given to teenagers across the globe every four years.

Is there some good reason to do this? Officials have tried to make a case for it.

Researchers say the study will give countries an in-depth insight into children’s learning at a critical age enabling them to share best practice.

The Early Learning and Child Well-being Study will be run on 3,000 students internationally in something like 200 settings per country. And when it's all done, OECD will have collected some data on how well some five year olds can perform some activities on tablets (or at least how well they did on that particular day given how they were feeling at that particular moment, though presumably OECD isn't going to be exact about the five year old thing, because you know it's a long way from five years to, say, five years nine months).

And if this doesn't seem creepy and ill-advised yet, the tablet-based standardized test will also attempt to measure "social behavior, empathy, memory and self-regulation." I am dying to know how a computer tablet-based activity can measure social behavior. The child shows interest in social behavior by refusing to finish the test and going to play with her friends instead?

It all seems like a terrible idea-- do we really need to subject kindergartners to more rigorous stressy standardized test baloney? Or even any? Do we need one more way to drive home from Day One that school is all about testing? And when officials start making a case for it, things only sound worse:

Minister for Children and Families, Robert Goodwill said: “We already know that a child who attends any pre-school can increase their GCSE attainment by as much as seven grades, so now we want to sharpen our understanding of how it can have the most impact. This study will build on the evidence available, driving our work tackling low social mobility and helping to spread opportunities for all children.”

Wow. All that from having five year olds take some computerized assessments.

The tests are supposed to be more like games and only take a few hours, though of course teachers would want to devote a chunk of the year to familiarizing their littles with the nature of the game, interacting with a tablet, and practicing the kinds of behavior that the test will allegedly measure. Because wherever standardized tests go, test prep must follow. 

So, a questionable idea with a questionable effect on education in order to garner questionable benefits. I truly lousy idea all around. One Brit encapsuled the whole thing pretty well-- Jan Dubiel, the national director of Early Excellence, the main provider of the baseline assessments for young children

Dubiel warned that while the introduction of tablet-based testing of five-year olds “may appear attractive and innovative”, the IELC study would “fail to identify the rich variety of characteristics that indicate a child’s knowledge, skills and point of development”.

“Computers can’t replace the human interaction and understanding that an early years’ teacher develops of their pupils, with an average teacher having thousands of interactions with their children every day.

“Rather than using five-year-olds as guinea pigs, the government should continue to listen to the thousands of schools, headteachers and teachers that support a non-test based approach . . . that takes into account all the critical learning behaviours that a child requires to have the best start in life.”

If there's anything the littles of the world don't need, it's one more formal standardized computer-based assessment. With the limited coverage of this pilot (set for fall of 2017) it's unclear whether the US is absolutely committed to this foolish experiment. Let's hope not.


  1. Child abuse, pure and simple. And profitable.

  2. I'm waiting for the pre-natal standardized tests. Only then will we really be getting serious about education.