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11 Dec 2018
Euan Auld, Jeremy Rappleye, Paul Morris

Framing the Future: PISA for Development and the Future of Education Governance

In this NORRAG Highlights published in connection with the release of OECD’s Pisa for Development results, Euan Auld, Assistant Professor at The Education University of Hong Kong, Jeremy Rappleye Associate Professor at Kyoto University Graduate School of Education and Paul Morris Professor of Comparative Education at the UCL Institute of Education, raise doubts about official claims that the new assessment was demand driven. The authors suggest that the positioning of PISA as an instrument to monitor SDG4 may influence more countries to join PISA as a de-facto benchmark or universal standard of education quality for all countries worldwide. They argue that this phase of international aid merges a thirst for boundless economic growth, testing and measurement, and humanitarian impulses, accelerating the shift from Education for All to Assessment for All.

The results of the OECD’s Pisa for Development (hereafter PISA-D) exercise are scheduled to be launched this week. The National Reports will detail both what has been learned and directions for the future in the 9 ‘pilot’ countries, one of which is Cambodia.  All of the instruments worked out over the course of the PISA-D pilot will be mainstreamed into PISA 2021, facilitating the OECD’s explicit goal of having all countries worldwide signed on by 2030.

In our recently published research (Auld, Rappleye and Morris 2018), we provide insight into how Cambodia joined the OECD’s new PISA for Development exercise. We highlight, in particular, the circumstances under which resistance from domestic policy-makers, whose priorities were elsewhere, and concerned donors, who worried PISA-D would only be distracting and counterproductive, was finally overcome by OECD and World Bank representatives.  We found scant empirical evidence to suggest that Cambodia officials were committed to international benchmarking or that Cambodian officials reached out to the OECD, undercutting the official OECD narrative that the new exercise was ‘demand driven’. PISA-D only ‘arrived’ when OECD representatives informed the Cambodian Minister that PISA-D was the instrument that would measure progress towards SDG 4.

To what degree are our findings emblematic of how the OECD and World Bank will pressure other countries still outside the PISA fold to sign up to PISA by 2030?

In our paper, we also argue that the OECD and World Bank are now, through PISA-D and other similar instruments, set to play an even more significant role in shaping education governance post-2015. The implication is that, not only were these organisations influential in ensuring that PISA would be used to define a basic minimum standard of education quality for SDG 4.1.1, or that OECD and World Bank representatives went above and beyond to deliver Cambodia, but these were merely the initial stages of a grander vision for the future of international development. It is worth remembering this larger story as the results are discussed in coming days.

Long before the SDGs had been decided, the OECD’s 50th Anniversary Vision Statement (2011) unveiled plans for a ‘new paradigm for development’, which is now taking shape in the OECD Learning Framework 2030 (OECD 2018). The OECD and its representatives have been quite explicit about the ultimate goal, the strategies for achieving it, and the mechanics by which it will operate (see also Addey 2017). In 2014, OECD representatives laid out the new vision for NORRAG readers, including the rationale:

This learning crisis has led to a general consensus that the post-2015 development goals for education should focus more strongly on the quality of learning and should be expanded to include education at the secondary level, not just primary.

Two years later, the OECD’s Michael Ward (2016) stated explicitly that the goal was to have 170 nations participating in PISA by 2030, whereby it would then serve as the universal standard of education quality for all countries worldwide. In fact, it will already serve as an indirect benchmark.

Now that PISA has been successfully anchored in the SDGs (UIS 2018) it will be used to monitor progress on the goals. By identifying universal minimum standards, the UN has hastened the transition to a phase of international development we conceptualize as humanitarian assessment, under which it will become an imperative of humanitarian assistance to be assessed, measured and compared. More significantly, it is framed as a moral duty for those working in the development industry to carry out these assessments, to assist in interpretation and subsequent interventions, and to hold a nation’s leaders accountable for the results. Spurred by this moral authority, we expect even more ambitious attempts to convert those still outside the PISA fold over the next decade.

If participation in assessment is a humanitarian imperative, we might well anticipate that an increasing number of nations will be pushed to align national assessments with the global standard. Such reorientation is clearly stated in the OECD’s vision. Moreover, the OECD Learning Framework 2030 is building a knowledge base for curriculum design based on its assessments and is translating its competencies and other key concepts so that teachers and school leaders can incorporate them into curricula (OECD 2018, 6). In this way, an assessment that asserts its relevance based on claims that it is curriculum independent – transcending disparate aims of education systems – is now being used to redefine national assessments and curricula; effectively, it will frame the future.

Writing for NORRAG in 2016, Addey questioned Andreas Schleicher’s claim that, by acting as a gateway to PISA, PISA-D would function as an Esperanto for education. To ensure that new developing countries are able to speak this dialect, capacity-building exercises are being initiated; a process of conversion that aims to institutionalise the OECD assessment in domestic frameworks. The approach contrasts starkly with earlier sentiments (e.g. OECD 2003), which reflected that aid should be led by national priorities and which acknowledged that overbearing donor projects had been creating excessive transaction costs and actually reducing capacity in partner countries. Rather than help build capacity internally according to domestic priorities, achieving the new OECD vision would inevitably entrench a global policy network of experts and their recommendations (i.e. best development practice) while establishing broader and more substantive partnerships with private entities.

While we argue that the OECD and World Bank were influential in shaping education governance post-2015, we acknowledge that identifying basic minimum standards of education quality was advocated by many within the international community (e.g. donors, international organisations, corporations). Reports tracing progress on the Millennium Development Goals reveal widespread belief in a global ‘learning crisis’, and a gradual shift from emphasising mutual accountability to emphasising the need to hold system leaders accountable. Through this lens, the reason policies and initiatives fail is primarily due to a lack of data and/or political will. Importantly, targets will be used to track the return on donor investments (and to legitimate the industry to taxpayers back home), and to support punitive accountability when the expected gains are not achieved; further incentive to align with the global standard.

As highlighted above, the results of PISA-D will be used to widen participation for more developing countries to enter PISA in 2021, 2024, and 2027, with all nations gradually integrated into the overarching OECD Learning Framework 2030.  At this point, it is not hard to imagine a predictable cycle will click into gear: a self-confirming repetition of measurement and reform, premised on infinite resources and fueled by a thirst for boundless economic growth, now supplemented with a symbolic genuflection to ‘collective wellbeing’. The last hold-outs in this quantitative crusade will come under increasing pressure to convert with each successive round. And as the OECD pushes closer to its goal of bringing all nations into its framework, many will celebrate this as the natural evolution of a ‘global testing culture’, one that seems to affirm our passage into an historic phase of one-world culture (e.g., Ramirez, Schofer, and Meyer, 2018)

While there are many reasons that nations join international assessments, our research in Cambodia highlights how the desire to foster a one-world culture among powerful donor agencies has infiltrated and shaped the current phase of what we would like to call Assessment for All. It is nonetheless hard to explain OECD and World Bank representatives’ disregard for domestic priorities, and the same unerring faith that has characterized preceding phases of international development. Here we leave that question open to interpretation. For now, we seek to underscore the cycle that has now been set in motion in low-income countries and we are left to wonder how many will be left outside the PISA fold when the time inevitably comes to draw a line under Assessment for All and to discuss a new agenda for international development.


Addey, C. (2017) Golden relics & historical standards: how the OECD is expanding global education governance through PISA for Development, Critical Studies in Education, DOI: 10.1080/17508487.2017.1352006

Auld, E., J. Rappleye and P. Morris (2018). PISA for Development: How the OECD and World Bank shaped education governance post-2015, Comparative Education, DOI: 10.1080/03050068.2018.1538635

Authors (forthcoming). Education 2030, Humanitarian Assessment and the Divine Cycle: a not-so-new paradigm for development.

Ramirez, F., E. Schofer, and J. Meyer. 2018. International Tests, National Assessments, and Educational Development (1970-2012), Comparative Education Review, 62:3, 344-364

Rappleye. J., E. Auld and P. Morris. (2018) PISA for Development: Myths and Misconceptions about Post-2015 Governance, Education International (TO INSERT AS HYPERLINK IN TEXT)

Euan Auld is an Assistant Professor at The Education University of Hong Kong; Jeremy Rappleye is Associate Professor at Kyoto University, Graduate School of Education; and Paul Morris is Professor of Comparative Education at the UCL Institute of Education. Other related forthcoming publications explore the OECD’s new assessments of well-being, global competence, and International Early Learning and Child Well-being Education (IELS). The authors can be reached at;; and, respectively.

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3 Responses

  1. Mike Douse

    Bravo! The growing recognition that, with universal connectivity, there is just the one Global School [much as there is now just the one worldwide library], makes obsolete the demeaning power of PISA and, hopefully, heralds the end of inter- or intra-national or inter-individual comparisons.

  2. Steven J Klees

    This is simply frightening. Psychometricians should be aghast. PISA was designed to be curriculum-free (as if) and now it is being used to shape the school curricula for the entire world. Joseph Stiglitz recently said: “What we measure affects what we do, and if we measure the wrong thing, we will do the wrong thing.” While he was talking about GDP the same is true of school outcomes. What happened to the aid agency refrain of “country ownership?” PISA-D will distort every country’s curriculum towards what PISA is measuring. OECD and the World Bank are ideologically-infused neoliberal agencies run amok, running roughshod over what needs to be a more participatory, democratic, locally contextual approach to understanding educational processes and outcomes.
    Steven J. Klees, University of Maryland

  3. Pingback : NORRAG – Global movement for assessments of early childhood development and what’s missing in SDG4.2 by Kenji Kitamura - NORRAG -

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