What do you think are some of the biggest misunderstandings about PISA?

I think probably the biggest challenge is people focussing in too much on the rankings.

The rankings are very important, because they are a measure of performance, they’re data that inform decision making, but what needs to happen is that people need to realise that the purpose of the testing is to identify what appears to be good practice that is working and learn from that.

The reason for the rankings is to identify which countries have education systems that appear to be producing, not only high performance but also ideally, high levels of equity.

By testing both the cognitive elements of student performance, and the attitudinal and behavioural and affective domain elements of schools and students’ performance, and mixing the two in the analysis, you can get a broad picture that gives you an idea of how students and schools and education systems are performing and then that forms the basis for the further analysis which is the rich part of the program.

So the problem is, just focussing on the rankings without everything that sits behind it is unfortunate.

In your EduTECH presentation you mentioned a number of myths the data has busted, what were a few of those?

I suppose the most important one is that you can actually achieve excellence with equity, one doesn’t have to come at the price of another.

For example, it’s not helpful to have a high level of grade repetition in your system. Having students repeat classes is important if it’s the right thing for the individual, but as general policy, it’s proven not to be productive.

Also, streaming or early tracking in school systems, is also shown through the data, not to be a sensible thing to do.

There’s different dimensions to it. One of the dimensions is you ability group students. As an intra-class technique, that’s absolutely a sensible thing to do if it’s topic-based or performance-based in the short term.

But streaming students into high performing and lower performing streams that continue on through their schooling, and particularly that result in different career paths, access to higher education or access to skill or trade-based occupations, if that’s done too early, then that’s seen not to be helpful and it doesn’t in fact increase the overall performance of the system anyhow.

And it can be quite problematic for individual students.

And the other thing that the data has exposed is it’s really important how you spend your money. It’s not so much how much money is spent, but actually where you target the spending. So how you allocate your resources.

And probably one of the more contentious elements is class size. The view that if you reduce class size, then that will fix most of your problems - if you’ve got problems - will probably lead to disappointment.

Class size is an important dimension of an education system and how it performs, but, if you balance class size with the way in which you provide other resources, for example, if you give teachers more time - some countries have larger classes, but give their teachers much more professional development and preparation time - and so, small classes in and of themselves are not necessarily the best way to fix and improve performance.     

In your view, how is Australia faring based on recent PISA results?

I suppose the first thing to say is that Australia generally performs above average, so Australia’s performance in PISA is comparatively quite good compared to most participating nations.

The point I was making [in my presentation] was that if you look at the trends from 2000 to 2015, there is a clear downward trend in Australia’s performance, least in science, less in reading than in mathematics, but clearly in mathematics there has been an ongoing decline in performance.

What that’s meant is that Australia’s now moved into, for mathematics, the area of the countries around the OECD average. And whereas in science and in reading, it has stayed in the areas that are statistically, significantly above average.

So whilst that doesn’t mean there’s a crisis, what it does mean is that there is a persistent downward trend and that’s potentially problematic.

And in science in particular, it seems that there could be an opportunity that Australia has, in science education, two actually develop the capacity in Australia that’s shown itself to be very innovative and leading in science and technology, and a downward trend, even though it’s a slight trend downwards, is not a healthy thing, but the mathematics performance certainly is a concern for education.

As I say, it’s not a crisis, but its certainly something that needs investigating.

Any advice for how we can turn results around?

So what I was suggesting [in my presentation] is that the first step is to get to know the data well.

And I referred to some of the work for example, that Margaret Wu and her colleagues are doing at Melbourne University, and I think the advice that they’re giving is very important, which is because Australia oversamples, so, we can report at state and territory level, Australian performance should be regarded nationally and then should also be analysed at a state and territory level, because what’s true for one state, may not be true for another. So that’s the first thing.

The other thing that should happen is, having a look at the extent to which PISA data is reflecting what the emphasis is in our curriculum.

PISA’s not a test of curriculum, it’s a test of skills and knowledge in applied situations, but, what we should be doing is looking at what the curriculum is, operating in Australia, but particularly how it’s being taught.

And I think what’s to be learnt is to have a look at how pedagogy is being undertaken in Australia, and compare it with how pedagogy is undertaken in other countries.

And you can’t transplant one country’s system into another, but you can certainly learn from others, and I think that’s the main message of PISA is that you can learn from what others do, even if their contexts are slightly different, or even significantly different.

PISA also looks into student background and wellbeing. You mentioned in your presentation that there are some concerning trends around Australian students and bullying and anxiety. In fact, you said we are ranked fifth highest out of 53 countries for bullying, can you tell us more about this? 

The concern I highlighted yesterday is Australia’s performance in bullying, to me, and I think to any observer, would be a matter of significant concern.

We are certainly in the top handful of countries that are featured as having high levels of bullying occurring.

And that’s based on an index that’s been developed from looking at a number of different behaviours that students experience.

We know, and this is something that’s been said at this conference often, that students that are under stress, will not perform well, will not learn well.

With the number of students that report they’ve been subject to bullying, is to me, an extremely serious concern, because their wellbeing will encroach on their ability to learn, quite apart from the fact that we want students to be happy and feel secure and safe at school, quite apart from their academic performance.

So I think the wellbeing volume is something that should be very carefully studied by policy makers and people who make decisions around how schools are run.

I have seen here at EduTECH, there is a focus both on the technology and in practice, targeting student wellbeing, measuring student wellbeing, that’s a really healthy sign.

But I think that the report from 2015 showed that that was really necessary, and we’ve probably got a long way to go.

Thanks for your time Peter, is there anything else you'd like to add?

The only other thing that I probably would say is that teachers now and schools now, have an enormous amount of information, theory, practice, that’s available to them from a whole range of media and different sources.

One of the challenges that teachers and school leaders now face is sorting out what’s important for them, what can they manage?

And so I think decisions around priorities, not trying to do too much too quickly, developing your priorities and then looking at those techniques, practices and research that will help you achieve what your immediate priorities are, I think will help to achieve more successful change.