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• The Pisa Survey that measures 15 year-olds' scholastic performance in different school subjects has major failings. The results can be misleading, as shown by a comprehensive data processing done by Dagens Nyheter.
• DN has identified individual student's test results. Many did not even answer every other question correctly, despite having performed well on the national tests and have good grades.
• During the same period that the Pisa was taken, Swedish students took a 12-part national test. Around one hundred students explained to DN that they were "test weary" and unmotivated when they took the Pisa test as it was not graded.
At a secondary school in central Falun, on a Wednesday in March, two years ago. Jesper Palmqvist, 15, and his 27 classmates are temporarily visiting.
It is a special school day. The students actually go to an elementary school in the community of Bjursås, approximately thirteen miles from here. Today, they travelled to Falun to take an unusual test. It is anonymous. It is not graded. And no one gets to know the results, not even the school.
“Do your best, but you do not have to take it too seriously. It will not affect you,” the teacher reportedly said according to several students.
Many are tired of school. In two months, the school year ends and the past weeks have been dominated by the national tests, assignments from the Swedish National Agency for Education that does play a significant role on their grades and futures.
Today's test is also highly significant, but not for the participants. The test is the so-called Pisa test that measures Swedish 15 year-olds' scholastic performance from a selection of the country's schools. The results will receive a lot of attention.
Dagens Nyheter has, with the help of data processing, been able to link the Pisa answer booklets to several individual students and schools. In this way, we were able to compare the students' performances to when they took the national test. We took a random sampling of 50 of the 209 participating schools. Altogether that represents 1,250 students.
DN's review shows that the Pisa survey does not always reflect reality. A large number of students do not even answer every other question, despite the fact that they perform well on the national test and have high grades.
Jesper Palmqvist is a top student at Bjursås. On the national test in mathematics for the ninth grade he got very high points and he was given the highest possible grade MVG, which is equivalent to an A. He has high grades in most subjects, but is particularly good in mathematics.
But on the Pisa mathematics section he only got every third question right. That is about the same result as the other students in his school.
“The national tests are completely crazy, they take a lot out of us students. Now when we had to take another test that was not even graded we got the feeling that it was not very important. There were a lot who did not take it seriously, and you are influenced by others,” says Jesper Palmqvist, who has now turned 17.
DN has interviewed 113 students that took the Pisa test and got MVG (an A) in mathematics. Most of them give a similar answer. 102 students explained that they were extremely unenthusiastic about taking the Pisa as it did not affect their grades. They say that they did not take the test seriously and that they did not do their best. Some explained how some classmates filled in random answers on the test form. Many reported teachers saying that the test was not “particularly important”. Only a few students say that they were motivated.
“I did not take it very seriously. Why should I have to take a test for no reason? The only reward we got was a pizza, says Hanna, who got MVG (an A) in mathematics, but got every other question wrong on the Pisa test.
The test evaluation was presented last winter and was a slap in the face for the Swedish school system. Sweden is the OECD land whose performance deteriorated the most over the past ten years. The result has set the agenda for the political debate.
DN's review showed several noteworthy response patterns in the Pisa. The Internationella Engelska Skolan i Bromma (the International English School in Bromma), Stockholm, one of the participating schools, has many high performing students. Approximately one fourth of the ninth graders received the highest grade, MVG, on the national test in mathematics in 2012. Over have received MVG in mathematics as a final grade. But their results on the Pisa test, that DN was able to generate, was exceedingly average. On average, the students correctly answered 47.5 per cent of the math questions. That can be compared to Forshedaskolan (Forsheda School) in Värnamo where the average on the Pisa test was 47,9 per cent correct. There only 4.2 per cent of the students received MVG on the national test, in other words, much worse. Every seventh student failed.
A few more examples:
• At Fridaskolan (Frida School) in Trollhättan, 15.5 per cent of the students received MVG on the mathematics part of the national test. The school's students, on the other hand, only averaged 44.8 per cent correct on the Pisa test.
• At Fäladsgården in Lund, 26.4 per cent of the students received MVG on the mathematics part of the national test. The school's students got an average of 37.5 per cent correct on the Pisa test.
• At Sandeplanskolan (Sandeplan School) in Vellinge, 16.7 per cent of the students received MVG on the mathematics part of the national test. The school's students got an average of 39.9 per cent correct on the Pisa test.
There are several more cases where schools with many high achieving students had very poor Pisa results.
The test is certainly somewhat harder than the national tests, but it is hardly impossible to get it completely right. In DN's review, we also found students, at some schools, that had very high Pisa results and had felt motivated. Some answered nearly all of the questions correctly.
Not all ninth graders in the schools take the test. One explanation for several schools with high performing students having received poor Pisa results, could be that the selection was not representative. But the low results shows up in several more schools that normally perform well in a testing and grading context.
In its Pisa report, the Swedish National Agency for Education has reacted to the fact that the number of unanswered test questions by Swedish students taking the Pisa, has increased.
The picture of Sweden's Pisa results is conflicting in many ways. The dramatic change over the past ten years is not reflected in the national tests. Just the opposite, over the past few years, students' results have improved. At the same time the merit rankings, or rather, the combined score values have increased.
Based on DN's review, it is impossible to determine if Sweden's declining results on the Pisa is due to the students' lack of motivation. The test is that same for all participating countries. Nor are the results graded there.
There are, however, differences. DN's interviews with students that took the Pisa shows that most of them felt “test-weary” at the time of the testing and that was why they were not fully invested in taking a test that was not graded. There are facts that, to a degree, justify their perception. Sweden is one of the OECD countries with the most national tests.
Moreover, Sweden is also one of the countries where the number of tests has increased, from 10 in 2003 to 12 in 2012. Additionally, they have become more comprehensive. Students that currently attend the ninth grade take even more national tests: 14.
During the same period that Pisa was administered, Swedish students took 12 different national test parts in the subjects of Swedish, English, mathematics and NO (biology, physics or chemistry). These were conducted over the course of a few months. How the students perform on these tests can be crucial to their chances of getting into their first choice of secondary schooling. Right in the middle of the test period, the students took the Pisa test.
DN has been in contact with around 80 school principals. The majority described their students as “test-weary” and that it was hard to motivate them to take the Pisa.
“I spoke with the group that was going to take the survey right before they were going to start the test. “They were unmotivated and questioned why they should have to take the test since they would not get to know their results and the test had no effect on their grades,” says Anna Carlsson, principal at Ilandaskolan (Ilanda School) in Karlstad.