Measuring learning in the global south – the case of PISA for Development

Year: 2019

Author: Gorur, Radhika

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

The OECD’s flagship Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has proudly proclaimed that its assessments produce data relating to countries that account for 90% of the world economy. However, these assessments left the entire continent of Africa, and large parts of Asia and South America outside the orbit of PISA. With the declaration of UNESCO’s Sustainable Development Goals, to which almost all the nations of the world are signatories, there is global interest in measuring learning in a comparative way across the world. Consequently, the OECD decided to extend PISA to many other nations in the global south. However, the PISA surveys, developed for the rich countries of the OECD, were not deemed suitable for assessing students in low-income nations. Accordingly, the OECD developed a new set of surveys called PISA for Development (PISA-D) that were specifically adapted to the contexts of low-income nations, whilst retaining comparability with the main PISA assessments.

This paper describes how the architects of PISA-D conceptualized the contexts of low-income nations, and elaborates the challenges of adapting surveys developed for the wealthy nations of the OECD to low-income nations of the global south.

Informed by concepts from Science and Technology Studies, the paper focuses on the politics of the mundane. It is based on interviews with key experts from the OECD as well as the agencies contracted to develop the cognitive questionnaires, the background questionnaires and the sampling protocols for PISA-D. Engaging with the nitty-gritty of the psychometric practices of translating the survey to suit low-income nations, and then administering these in association with national actors, the paper explores how certain exclusions and reproduced in the seemingly neutral practices of measurement.

Unlike PISA, PISA-D has had little research attention. However, the importance of PISA-D, particularly for those interested in social justice in the global south, cannot be overstated. PISA-D was conducted as a pilot in eight nations in 2017-2018: Cambodia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Paraguay, Senegal and Zambia. From 2021, PISA-D will simply be known as PISA and extended to many more nations of the global south. It will be the paper-and-pencil counterpart of the current PISA (which will be electronically administered). This paper draws attention to this under-researched phenomenon, and explores how the introduction of PISA in low-income nations might serve to exacerbate social injustice in these nations.