This week, the results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released. The PISA is a triennial survey that tests the skills and knowledge of 15 year old students in 65 countries. This iteration focused on math, and the comparative results of the 510,000 students who participated helps evaluate the current state of the education systems of their respective countries.
The PISA results shine a light on the focus different systems across the world put on test taking. Many of Asian are stereotypically known for an intense cultural push for success, which often measured in test scores. Given that South Korea topped the chart for the second time*, followed this year by Japan, this cultural pressure on testing seems to be more than just a stereotype. According to one of my classmates, a native Korean, the Korean education system is so grade-based that it turns students into test-taking machines. Finland, ranked number two at the time of the previous survey, supports the theory that kids should be considered in school as more than their test scores. The Finnish education system has received a lot of praise recently for their unique practices. Educational researcher Tony Wagner wrote a book entitled “The Finland Phenomenon” that mentions the mindset that everyone can achieve greatness and equal success as one of the reasons behind their great success. Although there is still a reasonable amount of teaching to the test that goes on in other countries such as France and the U.S (whether it is the SAT, an ordinary exam, or the Bac), education is geared towards improving the whole person and preparing them, ideally, for their future. Furthermore, in these countries, school as an institution sets out to help students become good citizens and stewards of the world.
In that vein, education generally represents an opportunity for children in an undesirable situation to pull themselves out of the rut in which they would otherwise remain. Unfortunately, this is becoming less and less true. In an article published by the French paper Le Monde, alongside the PISA results, was a graph detailing the opportunity gap in a handful of countries, including France and the United States. U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented upon what the PISA results say about the American education system: the results are at odds with the country’s desires and they reveal a stark achievement gap that Duncan believed could be decreased if we raised expectations to meet the level of student confidence. Even worse than the opportunity gap in the States is that in France. The French Minister of Education, Vincent Peillon, wants to focus even more of the country’s efforts on bringing all the schools up to the same level. To achieve this goal, he suggested taking some of the funding from an elite genre of post-high-school, college prep schools (known as les écoles préparatoires or prépas) and put this money towards the Zones d’Education Prioritaires (ZEPs, or high-priority districts).