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PISA pilots foreign language element in test

In mid-pandemic, in 2021, a sample of 15-year-olds from five countries took a test – in Covid-safe conditions – of their listening and speaking skills in English. They were part of the very first pilot of the new foreign language element of the OECD’s famous Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which is administered every three years to a large representative sample of 15-year-olds in over 80 countries.

The pilot aimed to check how well the listening and speaking elements – skills never before used in a PISA – would function.

In a quote which has gone viral, OECD’s analyst, Catalina Covacevich, noted, “We were concerned that students with low levels of speaking skills may have found the pilot stressful, but one school enjoyed it so much, they clapped after the speaking assessment.”

When it comes to mainstream education, PISA has become the benchmark. Every three years the world’s press seizes on the current test results for maths, science and reading to see how their country’s education system is faring against others. The addition of an English language test, which was designed with OECD partners Cambridge University Press & Assessment, will add further fuel to the fire by producing data on the English proficiency of a large representative sample.

The main aim of the PISA foreign language assessment, however, is not just to provide comparative scores, but to produce large-scale comparative data on how English is taught and learned in schools around the world.

Just as important as the test, therefore, is the array of accompanying questionnaires for teachers, students, schools, parents and policymakers which will reveal both the societal context of language learning and to pinpoint the policies, approaches and methods which are most effective.

“Surveys of this kind are ground-breaking,” writes Dr Hanan Khalifa, of Cambridge, in a recent paper, “because they allow us to look at impact on an incredibly large scale. It will… help to close skills gaps and shape English language teaching for future generations.”

Meanwhile, the work goes on. When the Foreign Language Assessment test undergoes a field trial in 2024, a third language skill, reading, will be added. Countries had to opt into the foreign language element, currently only available for English, by the end of 2022. The first results will be announced in 2026. And it won’t stop there – the aim is to produce tests in other languages too.

As PISA supremo Dr Andreas Schleicher explained to Dr Khalifa in a recent interview: “English was a natural starting point. That’s the foreign language most commonly taught, but… we would be open to adding languages. And I do believe it’s important that this becomes not about English, but about can you speak another language that is not your own?”

Image courtesy of Library
Melanie Butler
Melanie Butler
Melanie started teaching EFL in Iran in 1975. She worked for the BBC World Service, Pearson/Longman and MET magazine before taking over at the Gazette in 1987 and also launching Study Travel magazine. Educated in ten schools in seven countries, she speaks fluent French and Spanish and rather rusty Italian.
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