OECD’s PISA, Media Sensationalism, and Education Reform in Japan

Memo #47 (Japanese translation available here)

Keita Takayama

The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), conducted every three years, has become a major event shaping education policy in many of the participating nations. The PISA report provides a comprehensive set of comparative data on 15 year old students’ performance, but its national rankings based on mean test scores in particular attract the most attention. Various policy actors use the rankings to affirm or scandalize ongoing education reform. The media is one of the key actors determining PISA rankings’ domestic impact, as they interpret them for the public.

Since the PISA 2000 data release, the Japanese national newspapers have framed the nation’s rise and fall in the rankings as either an endorsement or indictment of ongoing reform. In the PISA 2003, the media interpreted the declining rankings as invalidating the reform initiative (ゆとり教育) introduced two years earlier, even though the only statistically significant drop was in reading literacy (from 8th to 14th). In the PISA 2009, the media highlighted advances in all tested subjects (from 15th to 8th in reading literacy, 10th to 9th in mathematical literacy, 6th to 5th in scientific literacy) and endorsed the Ministry of Education’s explanation that the rankings had confirmed its policy focus on reading and comprehension, which the Ministry had introduced in response to the ‘PISA 2003 shock.’

These media reports ignore the OECD’s consistent caution about the misuse of its data. The OECD’s PISA 2009 Results states: “Because the figures are derived from samples, it is not possible to determine a precise rank of a country’s performance among the participating countries” (OECD, 2010: 55). Although Japan is ranked 8th in reading literacy, there is no statistically significant difference between the 5th and the 10th ranked nations. This raises questions about the utility of these rankings as an assessment of ongoing reform. These cases not only attest to the media’s sensationalism but more importantly to the wide public acceptance of a reductive explanation of education policy and its effect. On the other hand, Japanese education researchers have recently appeared in media outlets to inform public debates on education reform. This type of effort is most welcome and certainly useful in preventing the PISA from becoming mere academic Olympiad.

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