[Rasch] PISA critique in TES - a competition? - from a distance

Thomas Salzberger thomas.salzberger at gmail.com
Tue Sep 30 20:55:09 EST 2014

Dear all,

I have been watching the discussion from a distance since education is not
my field of expertise.
Consequently, I refrain from making specific comments about the content.

Anyhow, in my mind, it is unfortunate that the controversy divides people
who are all, by and large, building upon the same premises and sharing more
or less the same understanding of what measurement is or what it should be.
It is an all to frequent phenomenon that the Rasch-community/ies get(s)
roped into discussions on issues we actually should not assume
responsibility for.
I, personally, do believe that PISA is first and foremost a political issue.

Isn't there an obsession with comparing everything, everybody, and every
Admittedly, I do see the point. It is interesting to compare the outcome of
educational systems of all sorts across all possible countries and derive
conclusions. The ones lagging behind can learn from the vanguard. All fine.
The objectives are commendable.

On the other hand, when does it come done to comparing apples and oranges?
Aren't there different curricula? Different emphasis from one country to
Different people? Culture?
Again, I am not an expert in the field, but I would think all of the above
Or should all be the same all over the world? Globalization, same goals,
one system?
Should we all teach to the PISA-test?

Rasch is a wonderful tool. Providing us with very useful properties if
requirements are met.
But isn't the frame of reference key? How far can we stretch the frame of
reference when it comes to PISA? Apples and oranges, important? All fruits,
after all.

However, what if one country tops the list in terms of apples but performs
poorly in terms of oranges?
Whisk the thing and it is all the same?
I assume that multiple rankings (or a range of rankings) provide a much
more valid representation, if one wants to apply Rasch. And I further
assume everybody familiar with Rasch and measurement openly or secretly
agrees. (Maybe I am wrong.)

The problem is, there is a political agenda. No politician (and the public)
would have a clue what these fuzzy rankings would mean. They want an
unambiguous answer. Simplicity rather than complexity. Damn thing that we
live in a complex world.

In fact, I do understand politicians. If they want to derive clear
conclusions, one equivocal ranking is much more useful. So, I do understand
all who are behind PISA when they desperately try to achieve this.

The question remains what conclusions politicians actually draw anyway?
This is not a rhetorical question, I really do not know the answer.

In my own country (Austria), I observed that
- politicians refer to the gap between Austria and the top (mostly the
Finns) whenever they want to emphasise that something needs to be done and
the thing that needs to be done is what they have always said needs to be
done (Pisa as the justification that action is required, but nobody really
thinks about how the apparently successful procedures followed in Finland
could be implemented in Austria; when asked about that politicians say "Ah
that wouldn't work here" or "That's too expensive, we cannot afford it").
- ruling parties acclaim any change to the better (even if it may only be a
result of random fluctuation, it's different cohorts, after all), and claim
that this is a sign that their policy is the right one
- whenever there is decline, ruling parties take this is evidence that
there policy is still the right one but that we need more of that policy
(we are on the right track, but it takes time, etc).
- the opposition claims the reverse.

No wonder that, as a citizen, I have doubts as to the usefulness of PISA
once the results are in the hand of politicians. I guess experts in
education might learn more from PISA results and they would know how to
interpret ambiguity. Alas, it is not experts who rule this world (perhabs
this is a good thing).

My fear is that the controversy about PISA will not be understood as a
controversy primarily about PISA but more as one about the Rasch model.
People will say "PISA? Isn't that this test where this obscure Rasch model
is applied?"
Or "No wonder that they are in a mess. Rasch just doesn't work."

This is not to say that we should not discuss the issue. It is one of the
great scientific assets of Rasch measurement that we do not shy away from
such debates. But we need to emphasise that problems, if any, are not due
to the Rasch model but due to the immense complexity of the task.
How this can be done? I don't know.

In any case, the purpose of Rasch is exposing problems, not necessarily
solving them.
This brings us back to politics. Politicians don't fancy problems, they
want solutions ...


Thomas.Salzberger at gmail.com
Thomas.Salzberger at wu.ac.at
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