International assessments in the context of Covid-19

By Juliet Sizmur

Wednesday 18 November 2020

Over the past two decades there has been a significant rise in the number of national governments, world-wide, taking part in international large scale assessments such as PIRLS, TIMSS and PISA.

Each time new results are published there is much fanfare and interrogation of global league tables, although rarely is there time to step back and consider what we can learn overall about the performance of a country’s education system.

Today, NFER has published a series of reports for the Northern Ireland government, which showcase the richness and depth of data from the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), and offers national comparisons with other IEA and OECD studies.

The new insights bring about important considerations for policymakers, schools, parents and the country’s wider education community. Specifically, they provide a greater understanding of what is working and where resources need to be prioritised.

For example, there is evidence of gradual improvement in reading standards in Northern Ireland, suggesting that strategies such as Count, Read: Succeed have been successful in delivering and sustaining positive outcomes for learners. Only two countries scored significantly higher than Northern Ireland in PIRLS 2016 and a high percentage of primary pupils (22 per cent) are working at the most advanced level internationally. This has the potential to offer a range of relevant learnings for other lower performing countries.

Additionally, there are insights into the most influential factors associated with pupil attainment and the ability to see differences in the populations of pupils attending schools. This is significant to help enable targeted interventions.

For example, the analysis reinforces the importance of socioeconomic status in educational outcomes. Pupils in schools with the highest concentration of disadvantaged pupils had significantly lower scores, on average, than those in schools with the lowest proportion of disadvantaged pupils. Additionally, foreign born pupils in post-primary schools scored, on average, 23 score points less than native born pupils. The analysis suggests that Northern Ireland’s New decade, new approach strategy is focused appropriately.

Other areas covered in the new reports include comparisons between urban and rural schools, alongside the importance of parents’ engagement in their children’s learning.

The next cycle of PIRLS will take place in spring 2021.

The impact of Covid-19 has been considerable on education and wider society, and there is a pressing need to understand the potential medium and longer term impacts of the pandemic on the outcomes of children.

In addition to seeing the extent of disruption through comparative trend analysis, PIRLS 2021 will include specific Covid-19 related questions for teachers and school leaders. This will provide national policymakers with strong evidence to understand the scale of disruption and the level of need for ongoing learning recovery.

Furthermore, it will provide important learnings on the success of different national responses to the pandemic, which will increase our understanding about a range of emerging areas, such as remote learning provision.

The overall goal of PIRLS is to provide the best policy-relevant information about how to improve teaching and learning and to help pupils become accomplished and self-sufficient readers.

Next year’s PIRLS assessment will have added significance in the context of Covid-19 and will arguably be the most important on record.