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The BBC calls it "the world's most important exam." In the world of high-stakes education reform, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)'s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rankings serve as a touchstone for policy makers and a benchmark for accountability to the tax-paying public.

The latest rankings, published earlier this week, have again alerted us to Canada's slippery hold on a top 10 international ranking. While we diligently tread water, the temptation exists to explain our slide in the rankings with maxims like "best in the English-speaking world" – but that ignores the story behind the data.

Every three years, the PISA test has measured global educational achievement in reading, math and science among 15-year-olds. With more than a decade of data under its belt, PISA has become the world's ultimate standardized test.

It now measures the educational progress of 66 countries through a sample of 500,000 students. By benchmarking reading, math and science at age 15, OECD aims to identify the basic skill level of tomorrow's workforce. The argument goes that a country which buys into the report has the ability to shore up gaps in education that lead to billions of dollars in lost economic output over a lifetime.

Like all education ranking schemes, however, the big picture doesn't emerge until you delve into each country's narrative. Contradictions are revealed. There's even a syndrome – PISA shock – that arises when a country's perception of its own performance is shattered by the cold, hard data delivered to its doorstep. Germany was its first victim in the Western world. Its reputation as an educated, economic powerhouse was shockingly undermined after its poor performance in 2000, which in turn, sparked a national dialogue about the relationship between families and the school system.

PISA results are meant to be a tool for identifying weaknesses that may be invisible to policy makers and news outlets intent on reinforcing an educational pecking order. The OECD's newly launched Skills Outlook 2013 tells us that Canada's 16 to 24 year-olds have fallen off the top 10 list completely when it comes to reading and math.

We don't need to wait for PISA results to acknowledge that we don't do a very good job of assessing potential in the high-school years. After all, a snapshot of a 15-year-old's performance on a standardized test on any given day cannot possibly be indicative of his or her future potential.

Instead of the snapshot approach to test taking, we could be building qualitative assessment models that provide learners, teachers and parents with better, real-time data on how successfully a student is learning. This kind of personalized environment allows teachers to help struggling students find their way back to their learning pathway. As the PISA study acknowledges, far too many students do not use learning opportunities available to them to their advantage because of lack of engagement. The question to ask here is why that is, and how we can make students feel engaged in how and what they learn.

We could be building better learning opportunities within our communities to transfer expertise and real-world skills to students. This approach may have its biggest pay-off with students in schools with low access to in-school resources by helping students make the connection between what they are studying and its relevance to future opportunities.

Our best schools are already incorporating many of these tactics. A more wide-spread approach needs to take root in the classroom with support from parents, school leadership, boards, and government. Waterloo Global Science Initiative is offering such a roadmap through its forthcoming Equinox Blueprint: Learning 2030. Building on the Equinox Communiqué announced earlier this fall, it will focus on how to affordably and sustainably scale high school education for the 21st century.

What can we take away from this week's PISA results? The answer might be that we're standing in the way of our own success.

Christine McWebb is the Director of Academic Programs, University of Waterloo Stratford Campus. Dr. McWebb was an advisor at the recent Equinox Summit: Learning 2030 which was held this fall in Waterloo, Ontario.