The Problem with PISA and BiH: A Useful Indicator, but Only Part of the Story

Dr. Brian Lanahan

College of Charleston, Fulbright Scholar

The release in December 2019 of the 2018 PISA data confirmed what anyone who has worked in or researched the education sector in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) already knows: BiH’s students are lagging significantly behind their international peers. However, when applying a more nuanced analysis that incorporates broader context, the results are more promising than they may seem at first glance.

For the first time in 2018, BiH participated in the OECD-sponsored comparison of academic achievement of 15-year-olds worldwide, and the results were very similar to other previous international comparisons (e.g., TIMSS in 2007), with scores below the international average. FENA NEWS reported these results as follows: “BiH is among 79 countries in the world that participated in the seventh cycle of the PISA survey in 2018, and the results show, among others, that every other 15-year-old has problems with functional literacy when it comes to the three segments the PISA survey covers.” Maja Stojkić, Director of the Agency for Preschool, Primary and Secondary Education, stated “our children are about three years behind OECD’s average. Reading literacy does not mean that someone can read or sign their name, but represents a process of understanding and analysis, and this research showed that more than 50 percent of students do not have basic functional literacy.” Interestingly before the start of PISA data collection in 2018, the Agency for Pre-Primary, Primary and Secondary Education of BiH gleefully announced the process on its website. “The PISA assessment has started in 2000 with the neighboring countries joining the study ever since 2006. Now, finally, Bosnia and Herzegovina has also joined PISA 2018 study, the seventh cycle of the assessment.” However, while participation was viewed positively by those who recognize the value of the country engaging in such international benchmarking exercises, the problems with PISA are well known and have been discussed at length in the literature for decades.

Although the results of this assessment should be alarming to anyone interested in the academic success of children in BiH, several points should be considered. Two issues with PISA are particularly relevant for BiH. First, some have characterized PISA as a Western-biased de facto measure of per capita GDP and, as such, can be used to coerce education in poor countries: “Many academics and educators critique PISA as an economic measurement, not an educational one. The media generally use PISA results to blame and shame school systems. And the way that some politicians, policy-makers and researchers have used PISA is more closely aligned to a political process than an educational one.” This coercive result was immediate once BiH’s 2018 results were announced: “PISA State Coordinator Zaneta Džumhur said that although the results are rather poor, there is room for improvement because unless the new steps and recommendations proposed by PISA are taken, this negative trend would continue”.

Second, PISA as a Western-oriented measure negatively affects BiH’s standing. “Even though PISA use is spreading globally, and is translated into national languages, it is still framed by Western understandings…”. Included among these “Western understandings” is a student-centered pedagogy that heavily focuses on critical thinking and the ability to examine, interpret, and solve problems – modern educational approaches that are more shallowly rooted in BiH and its neighbors in the Western Balkans than in the broader EU neighborhood to which it aspires. While BiH has been in a slow but well-documented shift toward the implementation of student-centered pedagogy and the teaching of critical thinking skills, it still has a long way to go. This situation creates somewhat predictable PISA results and the sum of these factors leaves BiH behind the curve before students even sit for the exam.

Finally, a quick dive into the PISA data, in comparison to 2018 IMF per capita GDP data, reveals that BiH performed commensurately with countries with similar financial resources, and more than held its own with other countries in the Balkans. BiH ranked 62nd on PISA with a per capita GDP of $13,491. This ranking falls almost perfectly in line with other closely ranked countries:

Country GDP PISA Rank
Brazil $16,154 57th
Albania $13,345 61st
BiH  $13,491 62nd
Peru $14,224 64th
Georgia $11,485 70th

While there will be outliers (e.g. Romania and Macedonia) the broader data set demonstrates that BiH is by no means an outlier in student achievement when accounting for financial resources. An examination of data from other Balkan countries suggests that BiH is doing well with the same considerations:

Country GDP PISA Rank
Slovenia $36,746 21st
Croatia $26,221 29th
Hungary $17,463 33rd
Serbia $17,555 45th
Romania $12,482 47th
Bulgaria $9,518 54th
Montenegro $19,043 52nd
BiH  $13,491 62nd
N. Macedonia $15,709 67th
Kosovo $11,552 75th

A More Nuanced Interpretation of BiH’s PISA Results

For a relatively poor country like BiH, these PISA results are to be expected, yet a closer examination gives both hope and guidance for the education sector. Given the many well-known challenges facing primary and secondary education in BiH, the fact that it is performing on par with—and, in a few cases, surpassing—countries with similar financial resources and histories should be lauded. If any of these well-known challenges can be overcome –  particularly the expensive and needless multiple levels of bureaucracy and administration, the inconsistent commitment to teacher training and professional development, and the continued reliance on rote memorization at the expense of critical thinking and problem solving skills – and BiH is able to put more money and resources into the classroom, where research has repeatedly demonstrated that student achievement is realized, BiH student achievement would be more competitive with similar and even wealthier countries. BiH’s students are holding their own in spite of the sub-standard pedagogical environment; one can imagine the contribution they could make if they received more modern support and educational opportunities.

Those in BiH’s public education sector as well as the donor and international community should look at these results as informative and work toward funding education in BiH at the level of wealthier countries and then ensure that funding ends up in classrooms. This could very well require rationalization of administration, streamlining, resource sharing, good practice exchange throughout BiH and beyond and an end to the weaponization of education that has greatly slowed classroom reform while eating up time, resources and human capital. Such actions could ensure opportunities to reform education into a high-quality, modern and more uniform education system that is on par and even exceeds that of its neighbors. If history is a guide, these changes will come slowly, but they are possible, and the PISA results can at minimum serve as a rallying point.