In the story of Aladdin, the hero finds a magic lamp, which, when rubbed, releases a genie who grants him his every wish. Not surprisingly, this soon gets him into trouble. Recent announcements by the OECD  suggest that the genie is out of the lamp for international assessments of educational achievement, and like Aladdin, we should choose our wishes wisely.
Barbara Ischinger and Andreas Schleicher of the OECD recently came to the World Bank to discuss the OECD’s new initiative called PISA for Development . Most of us are already familiar with the OECD’s PISA  exercise, which assesses the reading, mathematics, and science competencies of 15-year olds around the world. The aim of PISA for Development is to identify how PISA can best support evidence-based policy making in emerging and developing economies that, until now, have been unable or unwilling to participate in the main PISA survey. This will be done through the following adaptations to the PISA design:
- Enhanced background questionnaires that better capture the conditions of students in emerging and developing economies and better describe the factors that impact their learning;
- Adjusted test instruments to provide greater resolution regarding performance at the lower end of the PISA achievement scales;
A methodology for including out-of-school 15 year-olds.
Many of these adaptations to PISA have been on the wish list of those working with emerging and developing economies for some time, and have the potential – if handled well – to be game changers in terms of the policy utility of PISA for these economies. This leads to my three wishes for PISA for Development.
Wish #1 -Test questions that 15 year olds in emerging and developing economies can actually answer
The success of PISA for Development rests on the extent to which the OECD can come up with a test that is capable of capturing the range of achievement among 15-year-olds in participating economies. However, based on what I’ve read, the OECD is planning to draw primarily on existing test questions from the PISA pool. This could be problematic because we already know from experience that emerging economies that have participated in the regular PISA survey sometimes end up with so many ‘zero’ scores on the achievement tests that they are unable to do much with the data. Ensuring sufficient questions that tap into lower-than-usual levels of the achievement scale will allow economies participating in PISA for Development to better harness the policy value of the enhanced background questionnaires as well as to better understand the achievement levels of their out-of-school populations.
Wish #2 - A test that emerging and developing economies can afford
Several emerging and developing economies – from Latin America to Africa to Asia - are on the list of potential participants in the PISA for Development pilot. The unit cost of their participation – around US$800K-US$900K – is more expensive than a regular PISA exercise because the pilot will include considerable developmental work on instruments and a methodology for including out-of-school children. While a variety of funding sources will cover the costs for this round, looking ahead, it will be important to come up with a model that is financially feasible for emerging and developing economies to handle on their own, or with limited external help.
Wish #3 - A test that contributes to learning for all
A PISA for Development test that is affordable, and that yields detailed information on achievement levels at the lower end of the scale, would be a valuable contribution to the post-2105 development agenda, which almost certainly will include a global learning goal. In order for the test to actually contribute to the attainment of such a goal, however, it will need to incorporate into its design a laser-like focus on how the results can most effectively be used to support and improve learning in the participating economies. At the end of the day, a test is just a test. The real power – the magic – comes from what we do with the results.
The lamp takes Aladdin on a series of adventures, which, after some twists and turns, leads to a happy ending. Let’s choose our own wishes for PISA for Development carefully to ensure we do the same.