Governments around the world anxiously await the results of the triennial tests of 15-year-olds carried out by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Education ministers pray their nation’s youngsters will climb the international league tables. Around half the countries that take part (66 in 2012) have made significant school reforms in the light of the results.

When the latest scores in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), as the testing regime is called, were published in December, England came 26th in maths, 23rd in reading and 21st in science. (The U.K.’s overall performance was similar.) Michael Gove said the results “eloquently” made the case for a more academic curriculum, more rigorous exams, more academies and free schools, and other reforms introduced by the coalition. His junior minister, Liz Truss, went to Shanghai in China, which topped the league tables in all subjects to discover the secrets of its success.

Now nearly 100 leading educational figures from around the world have issued an unprecedented challenge to Pisa — and what they call “the negative consequences” of its rankings — in a letter to its director, Andreas Schleicher.

The OECD, the letter says, has “assumed the power to shape education policy around the world.” Using “tests widely known to be imperfect,” it encourages governments to seek “short-term fixes” to climb the rankings; and kills the “joy of learning.” Pisa, the signatories argue, dramatically increases the reliance on “quantitative measures” to rank and label pupils, teachers and heads. The letter points out that the OECD — which has 34 member nations, most of them European — is focused on the economic role of schools.

The letter to Schleicher — described by Gove as “the father of more revolutions than any German since Marx” — is published on the Guardian website and on Global Policy, an online hub for academics and teachers.

The letter argues that school reforms should not ignore the “paramount” role of socio-economic inequality in influencing pupil performance. It also argues that the OECD’s growing influence over how schools are run is undemocratic.

“The OECD is a club,” says Heinz-Dieter Meyer, professor of education policy at the State university of New York and one of the letter’s organisers. “There is not even an aspiration to democratic legitimation. You become a member only by being invited. The founders were the U.S. and U.K. and they are still the chief influences. Just as governments in those countries were taken over by neoliberal Thatcherism and Reaganism, so was the OECD. Except that, while there is resistance to these policies in member countries, in the OECD they reign supreme. It looks more and more like a global super-ministry of education,” says Meyer.

Schleicher, he says, is endorsing controversial education policies. In the U.S., for example, he backed the Common Core, an initiative to establish consistent standards across the U.S. which many teachers oppose. In New Zealand, educationalists say he has given — perhaps unwittingly — partisan support for the ruling National Party’s policies.

The letter to Schleicher also says the OECD is cooperating “with multi-nationals which stand to gain financially from any deficits — real or perceived — unearthed by Pisa.” Pearson — owner of the Financial Times and Penguin Books and the world’s biggest publisher of school textbooks — is overseeing the next Pisa tests, due in 2015.

Schleicher told the Guardian that the OECD had hundreds of contracts with academics, researchers, public institutions and private companies. “We do not enter continuing partnerships with companies; it would be inappropriate for us to do so.” He also denied that Pisa endorsed government policies.

“All we said was that Common Core standards are in line with what they have in high—performing countries. We have empirical evidence for that.” The letter says the OECD should cancel the next round of Pisa tests. This would allow time to develop “more meaningful and less easily sensationalised ways of reporting assessment outcomes”. Parents, teachers and pupils should be involved in the changes.

“Education policy across the world is being driven by the single aim of pushing up national performance levels on Pisa,” says one signatory, Stephen Ball, professor at London University’s Institute of Education. “It’s having a tremendously distorting effect, right down to the level of classroom teaching.” Another signatory, Sally Tomlinson, research fellow at Oxford University’s education department, says that, though the Pisa league tables appear scientific, “you really can’t compare a country the size of Liechtenstein with one the size of China and nor can you compare education systems that developed over the years in different political, social and cultural contexts”.

The signatories are particularly concerned about the U.K., the U.S. and other countries imitating Asian countries that come high in the Pisa rankings. They are suspicious of Shanghai’s success. “Shanghai’s approach is an incredibly strategic one,” says Ball. “Their students practise the tests.” In a recent paper for Teachers College Record, one of American’s leading educational research journals, Meyer says Asian pupils’ scores are partly attributable to intensive cramming and do not translate into greater ability to come up with novel ideas and take risks.

Though eastern traditions of filial piety and deep respect for learning can be admired, he writes, “these features often come on the back of ... unquestioned obedience to authority”.

The OECD, he warns, is expanding its testing into new areas, such as teacher training, higher education, workplace training and “adult competencies”. It “seems hell-bent on assessing every square-inch of the educational globe.” Public education, Meyer fears, will soon cease to be a civic project and become “a training ground for economic fitness.”

Schleicher, however, says that Pisa, far from impoverishing education, enriches it because it encourages ideas from around the world. Poland and Germany, he points out, modified streaming by ability in their secondary schools after Pisa analysis showed children from the lower socio-economic classes fell behind. “Those were hardly short-term fixes,” he says. “Germany has become more unequal as a society but education is closing the gap.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2014

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