23 SES 05 A, International Knowledge Assessment and National Reforms
This paper is engaged in questions of the realities “performed into being” (Gorur, 2010; Latour, 1999) through knowledge assessment, with a specific interest in PISA and its assessment of scientific literacy. The concern about PISA results accelerated in Sweden, where this study is located, after the latest PISA survey 2012, due to what has been asserted as a historical decrease in performance. During the broadcasted press conference at the Swedish National Agency for Education held to present the national results, the director-general stated her confidence in PISA: “Here at the National Agency for Education we trust PISA” (Ekström, 13-12-03). In line with Gorur (2010), Popkewitz (2011) and many others, I believe there is reason to stress the problematic with this type of unreserved faith in PISA as evidence about educational failure or success. In this paper, I will suggest that low performance is an attribute of the assessment, more than an attribute of school systems or single students. Perhaps surprisingly, I will begin my argumentation in a discussion about microbes:
In The Historicity of Things, Bruno Latour (1999) asks: Where were the microbes before Pasteur? As writes Latour, many would find it commonsensical to answer that the microbes were in the same place before and after Pasteur; that Pasteur did not change the course of events – he only ‘discovered’ a pre-existing phenomenon, and named it microbes. According to Latour, existence presumes experience, and for that, to be given attributes: ‘the mind’ for example has to get the attributes ‘individual’, ‘dis-embodied’ or ‘thinking’ before it can be experienced as such. Therefore, ‘obviously’ thing-like objects for thought, such as microbes – e.g. the ferments in Pasteur’s nineteenth century laboratory in Paris – first needed to be given circumstances, conditions, specific nutrition demands, and not least ways of being detected. Thereafter, they became microbes. And therefore, Latour insists, microbes did not exist before Pasteur “happened” to them (p. 146).
I argue that microbes are not much unlike knowledge, skills and competencies: A thing-like object for thought such as lack of competence (as in a 21st century, OECD-produced assessment about young citizens’ skills for future life) did not exist before a detector had been discovered/invented/constructed (Latour, 1999), making it possible to discern it as something (on detectors, see Knorr Cetina, 1999 and Pickering, 1995). The detector here is the test-instrument; adjusted to detecting defined competencies by the means of specific test-items within the assessment’s literacy framework.
The ontological argument for Latour lies in what we have learnt to hold for true and not:
In the correspondence theory of truth, the ferments are either out there or not, and if they are out there they have always been out there, and if they are not they have never been there. (Latour 1999, p. 149).
I propose that measured competencies are not ‘caused’ by knowledge and learnt skills, but are coming into existence through the means construed to detect them and that lack of competence is linked to the historical event of starting to try to detect a specific competence. In this paper, I aim to 1) trace the production of truth about low performance by looking into how the competencies related to scientific literacy are described and written out in PISA documents and test-items and 2) study how ‘lack of competence’ comes into existence when students are reading, making meaning of and responding to test-items from PISA science (OECD, 2006).
 Which is exactly why the mind also can be experienced as collective, embodied and acting, for instance
 In the case of microbes, the detector was the nose of Louis Pasteur.
Ekström, A. (2013). Broadcast from press conference of the Swedish PISA results. 2013-12-03 Foucault, M. (1971). L’ordre du discours. Editions Gallimard. Gorur, R. (2010). ANT on the PISA Trail: Following the statistical pursuit of certainty. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 43(1), 76-93. Kendhall, G. & Wickham, G. (1999). Using Foucault Methods. London: SAGE. Knorr-Cetina, K. (1999). Epistemic Cultures. How the sciences make knowledge. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press. Latour, B. (1999). Pandora’s Hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. OECD (2013). PISA 2012 Results: What Students Know and Can Do – Student Performance in Mathematics, Reading and Science (Volume I). OECD Publications. OECD (2010). Strong performers and successful reformers in education. OECD Publications. OECD (2007). Competencies for tomorrow’s world. Volume 1. Analysis. OECD Publications. OECD (2006). Assessing Scientific, Reading and Mathematical Literacy. A Framework for PISA 2006. OECD Publications. OECD, 1999. Measuring knowledge and skills. A new framework for assessment. OECD Publications. Pickering, A. (1995). The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science. University of Chicago Press. Popkewitz, T. (2011). PISA. In M. A. Pereyra, H.G. Kotthoff & R. Cowen (Eds.), PISA Under Examination: Changing Knowledge, Changing Tests, and Changing Schools (pp. 31-46). Sense Publishers. Serder, M. & Jakobsson, A. (2014), “why bother so incredibly much?” Student perspectives on PISA science assignments. Cultural Studies of Science Education. DOI: 10.1007/s11422-013-9550-3
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