International Large-Scale Assessments and Education System Reform. On the Power of Numbers

Melanie Ehren (2021)

In: Nilsen, Trude/Stancel-PiątakJan, Agnes/Gustafsson, Eric (eds.), International Handbook of Comparative Large-Scale Studies in Education. Perspectives, Methods and Findings. Springer Living Edition. Online

Abstract. International large-scale assessments, such as PISA and TIMSS, have had a profound effect on educational policy and school accountability. In an open letter to the OECD in 2014, a large number of academics expressed their concerns over the continuous cycle of global testing and how it negatively affects student’s well-being and impoverishes classrooms, as it inevitably involves more and longer batteries of multiple-choice testing, more scripted “vendor”-made lessons, and less autonomy for teachers. Others have pointed to the ways in which international large-scale assessments have opened up education systems and built country’s assessment capacities. This chapter reviews the ways in which international standardized assessments permeate national policy and school-level decision-making, drawing on the sociology of numbers to understand the appeal of standardization and benchmarking. The OECD initiative “PISA for Schools” is described and how it potentially extends the influence of international assessments on the classroom. An alternative project within the OECD (the “Strategic Education Governance” project) is presented and how the approach of case studies and learning seminars allows countries to learn more holistically about how to hold schools accountable and improve education. Openness, situational awareness, and a consideration for the complexity of successful reform are presented as necessary “habits of mind” to successfully improve learning outcomes. The final conclusion reflects on the limitations and potential usage of international large-scale assessments for effective education reform.

Extract: “The Power of Numbers
The appeal of international large-scale assessments and their rankings is a topic that has been studied for a number of years. Various studies on “the sociology of quantification” (e.g., Espeland and Stevens, 1998, 2008; Espeland and Sauder, 2007; Frey et al., 2013) talk about the “power of numbers and rankings” and how these have legitimacy over more qualitative information. One of the groundworks in the field is Desrosières’ (1998) book The Politics of Large Numbers which questions the relationship between quantification and government and analyzes the processes of production and communication of numbers and numeric data in relation to the political power they unleash (Diaz-Bone and Didier, 2016). Subsequent studies, such as by Espeland and colleagues, further regarded the way societies produce their own categories and nomenclature, how numbers are used and change our understanding of diffuse qualities, and how quantitative information has become an increasingly dominant form of information to coordinate, evaluate, and value.” (p. 7)

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