JOHN TONS. Testing times for South Australian schools.

Nov 30, 2018

Coming soon to your local school is news about South Australia’s ranking on the McKinsey Universal Scale.  Most likely you will have never heard about the McKinsey Universal Scale, or McKinsey for that matter.  McKinsey is yet another international company that is seeking to cash in on the international preoccupation with constructing league tables about education performance. 

There can be no argument that we need to be informed about the quality of our schooling. The South Australian Education Department has always monitored and evaluated school performance.  Parents and politicians want to be reassured that the money spent on education is being well spent.  Few would argue with the CEO’s stated ambition to make our system not just a great system but a world class system, but is this really the best we can do? Do we really need to spend a million plus for a company with no knowledge of local conditions to tell us how we compare internationally?

In common with education departments world-wide, those entrusted with managing our education system are not professional educators.  They are selected on the basis of having strong management expertise; it is assumed rather naively that experiential knowledge of teaching and education is not necessary. In South Australia the problem is compounded because management can no longer draw on the expertise of in-house research and development expertise.

Had such research been available, management would have been alerted to significant problems with McKinsey’s attempt to develop a universal scale.  They would have looked at Hanushek’s and Woessmann’s research on which their scale is supposed to be based. Indeed their most recent paper ( highlights the limitations of standardised tests that are used to make cross-country comparisons.  Had they done just a little bit of research they would have quickly come to the conclusion that the McKinsey’s model has all the insights of someone’s understanding that is based on having seen the book and heard about the film.  Even without going to their sources one has to be suspicious of an analysis that arrives at this magic number based on national and international standardised tests all conducted at different times, all with very different margins of error, yet – ignoring all this – uses this data to come up with a universal score.  Such an approach means that the number arrived at is meaningless.  At least when Douglas Adams told us that the meaning of life was 42 he did not pretend that this was anything more than a well-constructed joke.

But McKinsey’s number is no joke. The support from the Minister is unqualified.  He describes the approach as “evidence based and data driven”.  Thus, the McKinsey’s magic number forms the basis not just of giving the state a ranking but also cloaking that ranking in the mantle of scientific objectivity and respectability.

Had the CEO paused for a moment to read the literature concerning Standardised Testing, alarm bells should have rung.  He should have noted that standardised testing is big business.  The business model of organizations like McKinsey is built around endowing their ‘tools’ with the aura of being evidence based and data driven.  Their tools are the vehicle whereby they can upsell various ‘solutions’. Testing is big business and as long as politicians are looking for magic numbers to give them a quick fix, tests will continue to prosper.  ( For McKinsey, getting a foothold in Australia is a pathway for selling their products.

But the other alarm bell that should have rung even more loudly is that, notwithstanding the importance of literacy and numeracy, if schools are to prepare students for the 21st century they need a broad spectrum of skills and abilities.  Increasingly educators around the world are noting that the pre-occupation that education authorities have with standardised testing is actually holding schools back. (

The third problem that all administrators should be aware of is that Australia has a systemic problem, a problem created largely by the ill-conceived policies of Liberal and Labor governments.  A recent OECD report describes how the policies of the last 25 years have resulted in greater inequity across the system.  Part of that is due to precisely what is being fostered by the McKinsey universal scale.  The inherent danger of this approach was the subject of an earlier article (  The McKinsey approach provides a false metric for comparing systems with the result that inequalities and disadvantage will become further entrenched.

Schools need funding to operate.  As funding becomes available based on the results of these tests, schools and education systems will attempt to ‘game’ the system.  Results can be improved by restricting those who sit for the tests or by devoting time to teaching the ‘tests’ –  all of this serves to make a mockery of the final results.

Although now retired, I have no reason to believe that the quality of teaching is any less today than it was when I was working.  In fact, I would go so far as to argue that the quality of teaching has continued to improve.  The schools and their teachers are more than capable of meeting the challenges of the 21st century.  The real question is whether our politicians will be willing to invest their faith in the dedication and undoubted competence of our teachers.

John Töns was a teacher, curriculum writer and researcher for the South Australian Department of Education.

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