In her blog, “Benchmarking or competing?”, Liz Reisberg provocatively suggests that international comparisons like the PISA results are dangerous because they divert attention from the main purpose of the educational enterprise and often influence national policy. I am not sure whether this fully reflects the Argentine case. In Argentina PISA results have helped show that money is no guarantee of quality improvement and that increased enrollment does not insure equity.
From 2005 to 2010, with a soaring economy, the Argentine government significantly increased public spending on education, mainly allocated to higher salaries for teachers. This was certainly good news because appropriate economic incentives for those in the classroom are a necessary condition to improving teaching quality. However, the PISA results made it clear that salaries are not enough. As many educational specialists highlighted, in order to improve school quality, Argentine students need more classroom hours, a longer school day, curricula adapted to the knowledge society, better trained teachers and, in particular, an effective academic program to motivate and help students from low socioeconomic backgrounds learn how to learn. According to PISA 2012, Argentina ranked close to the bottom – position 59 out of 65 countries. Argentina’s results not only reveal a significant lack of improvement since PISA 2000 but also a decline in language skills. Without taking other OECD’s or Latin American countries into account (that is, without trying “to compete” with others), the PISA test offers the Argentine people the chance to reflect and ask what we are doing wrong and what we should do to improve and guarantee our students competence in language, math, and science skills. Of course, PISA measures only basic subjects— language development, math skills and scientific knowledge. A high school education is far more than that, but, undoubtedly, this knowledge is an important part of the learning we should expect at this level. Consequently, one of the positive impacts of PISA’s results in Argentina is that the authorities and public opinion should now pay attention to educational results and not only the increase in economic resources.
The government explains that the main reason for the Argentine PISA results has to do with the inclusive policy that boosted the high school enrollment rate during this decade. Many students from poor socioeconomic backgrounds are now attending high school. This is true but attending school does not necessarily improve equity in education. Three data highlighted that the issue of inequality in Argentina’s secondary education is still a key problem.
First, let us analyze the profile of new high school students and graduates over the last decade in Argentina. While enrollment grew significantly, the number of graduates at the secondary level not only did not increase pari passu the new enrollment, but their numbers fell in absolute terms – an issue of major concern. According to ECLAC, a high school diploma in Latin America is considered the threshold to climb out of poverty.
Second, Natalia Krüger, in her paper “Social Segregation and Educational Attainment Inequality in Argentina” based on PISA 2009 results, examines the effects of a school’s social composition on individual reading performance. The evidence shows that young people of low socioeconomic status face a double educational risk: an initial disadvantage related to their social and family background and a high probability of attending a school with a vulnerable student population where they may be exposed to negative peer effects. So, thanks to the PISA test, this kind of interesting research can be done and it is clearly useful in designing policies to improve equity in secondary education.
Finally, according to the PISA 2009 results, Argentina registered the highest variance of results according to the socioeconomic background of the students. This fact is also in line with Krüger’s findings.
In sum, I agree with Liz Reisberg that this international test may not measure all the important processes and output of secondary education, but it at least provides some data to reflect on, beyond the satisfaction of comparing our 6 percent of GDP allocated to education with other OECD countries. Also, as John Kingdon said in his book Agendas, Alternatives and Public Policies, “Fairly often, problems come to the attention of governmental decision makers not through some sort of political pressure or perceptual sleight of hand but because some more or less systematic indicator simply shows that there is a problem out there” (p. 90).