Theses Doctoral

The Politics of International Large-Scale Assessment: The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and American Education Discourse, 2000-2012

Green Saraisky, Nancy

The number of countries participating in large-scale international assessments has grown dramatically during the past two decades and the use of assessment results in national-level education policy debate has increased commensurately. Recent literature on the role of international assessments in education politics suggests that rankings and performance indicators can shape national educational discourse in important ways. This dissertation examines the use of one such assessment, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in education discourse in the United States from 2000 to 2012. The United States played a key role in the development of PISA and has participated in almost every international assessment of the past fifty years. Yet scholars have mostly overlooked the reception of international assessment in the United States. This dissertation seeks to address this gap.
Using an original dataset of one hundred and thirty texts from American academic literature, think tanks and the media, I examine the use of references to PISA and to top scoring countries on PISA, e.g., Finland and China (Shanghai), during the first decade of PISA testing. I find that PISA has rapidly become an accepted comparative measure of educational excellence throughout US discourse. However, despite consistently middling American scores, attempts to turn America’s PISA performance into a crisis of the US education system have not stuck. Instead, I suggest that both global and domestic politics play a stronger role in shaping the interpretations of student achievement on PISA than does student performance. I show how the American PISA discourse: (1) is driven by political, not empirical, realities; (2) contains few calls for policy borrowing from top-scoring countries and has not engendered any direct efforts at policy reform; (3) is framed with remarkable consistency across the political spectrum; and (4) is a profoundly elite enterprise, privileging the voices of international organizations and policy makers over those of parents, teachers and students.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Comparative and International Education
Thesis Advisors
Pizmony-Levy, Oren
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 12, 2015