A testing challenge for early childhood

Do cross-national assessments of young children confirm what we already know or is it worse: are they ‘robbing meaning from individual histories’? Peter Moss—international keynote at ECA’s 2019 national conference—and Mathias Urban explore what we learn and what we lose if Australia allows itself to be drawn into international testing regimes known as ‘pre-school PISA’ as part of a global push for data.

The first reports of the OECD’s IELS have just been published. What are these acronyms? And why do they matter? OECD stands for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovernmental economic organisation, mainly for rich countries (including Australia), which has become increasingly involved in education. Its flagship education project is PISA—the Programme for International Student Assessment, an international programme that tests 15-year-olds in reading, maths and science. But the OECD has been developing a battery of other international tests for children and adults— most recently the IELS or International Early Learning and Child Well-being Study.

The IELS is a cross-national assessment of five-year-olds on four ‘early learning domains’ (early literacy and numeracy, self-regulation, and social and emotional skills), based on ‘developmentally-appropriate, interactive stories and games delivered on a tablet device’ (OECD, 2020a: 96) and supplemented by information gathered from staff and parents using questionnaires (individual background, home learning environment, early childhood education and care experience, children’s skills). In March, reports were published on the first round of the IELS, conducted in 2018/19 by a consortium of contractors including the Australian Council for Educational Research.

This first round included just three countries—England, Estonia and the United States, as most OECD member states declined to participate. Indeed, there has been substantial criticism of the IELS since information about it first leaked into the public domain in 2016. To take just one example, the IELS takes no account of national context or cultural complexity. Back in 2018 we wrote that

The IELS claims to collect ‘contextual information’ but, on closer examination, this information turns out to be confined to some background information about individual children…There is nothing on the wider political, social, cultural and pedagogical context in the participating countries, essential though this is to gaining any understanding of early childhood education or, indeed, to interpreting test results with any degree of insight (Moss and Urban, 2018, p.4).

We concluded that such flaws made the whole exercise essentially pointless.

That view is confirmed by the just-published reports. What do they tell us? The answer, in a nutshell, is very little we didn’t know already. We discover, for example, that girls do better on emergent literacy and socio-emotional skills, and poorer children do worse on all measures, reiterating much previous work; as does the conclusion that ‘What parents do is pivotal for their children’ (OECD, 2020a: 12), and that ‘children from advantaged families, on average, have more learning opportunities’ (OECD, 2020c: 7).

More significant is what the reports do not tell us—again in a nutshell, an awful lot. To take a few examples, the reports don’t go into:

  • How the overall early childhood education and care systems in each country function, so ignoring the importance of ‘whole systems approaches’.
  • The ‘culture’ of early childhood education and care in the three countries, that ‘intricate weave of traditions and influences, theories and concepts, social constructions and images (of the child, the worker, the parent, the centre), procedures and practices, shaping understandings of what services are about and what constitutes “good” work in them’ (Moss, 2018: 25).
  • What explains the reported national differences in test performance—for example, why ‘Estonia had the smallest differences amongst children based on their socio-economic backgrounds whereas the greatest differences were found in the United States’ (OECD, 2020a: 12)?

Why does this matter? First, because the IELS is part of the OECD’s attempt to establish itself as the global governor of education—defining standards, measuring indicators, drawing comparisons and encouraging benchmarking, and offering prescriptions for improving performance. The OECD has no formal legal power over education. Instead, it exerts influence by a growing use of comparisons, statistics and indicators. Its aim is an education of standardisation and uniformity.

Second, because the IELS is costing millions of dollars, money spent on what Loris Malaguzzi called ‘Anglo-Saxon “testology” … [which is] a ridiculous simplification of knowledge, and a robbing of meaning from individual histories’ (Malaguzzi, 1990, quoted in Cagliari et al., 2016: 378). That money could have funded more useful comparative research into early childhood education and care, research that recognises and indeed welcomes diversity and complexity, provoking thought and critical questioning.

Third, because the OECD plans a second round of the IELS and will be looking to recruit more countries after the first round’s poor turnout. The possibility of Australia being drawn into this ‘preschool PISA’ is real. And like the original PISA, this will increase pressure to ‘teach to the test’ (Urban and Swadener, 2016) and distract attention and resources from addressing the inequalities and other challenges facing Australia’s early childhood system. The early childhood community in Australia needs to be aware of what is at stake and prepared to resist this misguided attempt at world government.


ECA Recommends 

Ethics and Politics in Early Childhood Education
By Peter Moss and Gunilla Dahlberg

Extending and developing the ideas raised in Beyond Quality in Early Childhood Care and Education the successful team of authors make a wide range of complex material accessible to readers who may have little knowledge of the various important and relevant areas within philosophy, ethics, or politics. Purchase your copy on the ECA Shop here.

Peter Moss

Peter Moss is Emeritus Professor of Early Childhood Provision at UCL Institute of Education, University College London. He has researched and written on many subjects, including early childhood education and care; the relationship between employment, care and gender; and democracy in education. Much of his work has been cross-national, and he has led a European network on child care and an international network on parental leave. He was founding co-editor, with Gunilla Dahlberg, of the book series, Contesting early childhood, whose aim is to question ‘the current dominant discourses surrounding early childhood’ and to provide a platform for alternative narratives. His books include Beyond quality in early childhood education and care (with Gunilla Dahlberg and Alan Pence); Ethics and politics in early childhood education (with Gunilla Dahlberg); Radical education and the common school (with Michael Fielding); and Transformative change and real utopias in early childhood education. He recently co-edited—with colleagues from Reggio Emilia, Loris Malaguzzi and the Schools of Reggio Emilia—a selection of writings and speeches by the great Italian educator.

One thought on “A testing challenge for early childhood”

    Karen Hope says:

    Thank you for this warning Peter Moss and Mathias Urban. I could not agree more that Australia’s early learning community needs to not only be aware of what is at stake here but also to be galvanised into resistance and action, but will they? I very much doubt it. This is an example of neo-liberalism at its very best and like all dominant discourses will be eased into existence very quitely.

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