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What international test scores really tell us: Lessons buried in PISA report

Susan Notes:


This was written by William J. Mathis of Goshen, Vermont. He is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center.. and a former Vermont superintendent. The views expressed are his own.

Ohanian Comment: Not only is this a very smart and helpful analysis of PISA results, it is the only intelligent comment I've read. Thank you, Bill Mathis. And thank you Valerie Strauss for putting this up.


By William J. Mathis

For the 27th, government officials have yet again been surprised, shocked and dismayed over the latest international test score rankings. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "We have to see this as a very serious wake-up call." Former Reagan education official Chester E. Finn Jr. reported that he was "kind of stunned" by the results of the Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) results. In hyperbolic overdrive, he compared the results to Pearl Harbor and Sputnik.

The PISA tests were given to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 65 nations and educational systems. Nine had higher average scores in reading, 17 in math, and 12 in science.

While ranking nations on test scores is a pretty sorry way to evaluate education systems, there is simply no reason to expect the results to have been any better than they were the last time we heard from this same chorus of surprised, shocked and dismayed pundits and politicians.

The reason is simple. Federal and state policymakers continue to embrace reforms that have little positive effect (if not downright negative effects) while ignoring reforms that make a difference. Buried within the PISA report is an analysis of educational systems that registered high test scores. Here are some of the less-reported findings:·

  • The best performing school systems manage to provide high-quality education to all children.


  • Students from low socio-economic backgrounds score a year behind their more affluent classmates. However, poorer students who are integrated with their more affluent classmates score strikingly higher. The difference is worth more than a year's education.


  • In schools where students are required to repeat grades (such as with promotion requirements), the test scores are lower and the achievement gap is larger.


  • Tracking students ("ability grouping") results in the gap becoming wider. The earlier the practice begins, the greater the gap. Poor children are more frequently shunted into the lower tracks.


  • Systems that transfer weak or disruptive students score lower on tests and on equity. One-third of the differences in national performance can be ascribed to this one factor.


  • Schools that have autonomy over curriculum, finances and assessment score higher.


  • Schools that compete for students (vouchers, charters, etc.) show no achievement score advantage.


  • Private schools do no better once family wealth factors are considered.


  • Students that attended pre-school score higher, even after more than 10 years.


  • As OECD Paris-based official Michael Davidson said in National Public Radio comments, "One of the striking things is the impact of social background on (U.S.) success."

    Twenty percent of U.S. performance was attributed to social background, which is far higher than in other nations. Davidson went on to point out that the United States just does not distribute financial resources or quality teachers equally. In a related finding, students from single-parent homes score much lower in the United States than they do in other countries. The 23-point difference is almost a yearâs lack of growth.

    Our Educational Policies
    Unfortunately, federal and state policies do little to adopt these factors that other nations have found so successful. Countless finance studies show that funding across our schools is inequitable and inadequate. Federal and state governments vaguely note this concern but actions do not match the rhetoric. Our treatment of economically deprived students is to house them in segregated schools and shunt them into tracked programs.

    A number of "get tough" social promotion policies have been adopted in states even though we know they are harmful. Despite a clear research consensus, early education is still politically disputed. Tracking students still remains the national norm even as we know it increases the achievement gap.

    As the federal government (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) has become even more top-down and prescriptive, local schools become less autonomous and less like our successful international counterparts. Finally, the push for privatizing public education through charters, tuition tax credits, vouchers and the like does not result in better test scores and has the effect of increasing segregation, and the inequalities that lead to low test scores.

    The American Dream
    The American dream is that all children have an opportunity to be successful no matter how humble their roots. Thus, the most troubling finding in the PISA results is the lack of "resilience" among our children.

    OECD measured resilience by looking at the scores of the least wealthy 25% of students and seeing what proportion of these students have academic scores in the top 25% of countries with similar socio-economic levels. In the highest scoring nations, 70 percent of the students are rated resilient.

    The U. S. figure is less than 30%. In a nation which sees the top 1% controlling more than 50% of the nationâs wealth and the collapse of middle class jobs, we face the specter of building a country of social, economic and educational apartheid.

    Secretary Duncan calls the PISA scores a serious wake-up call for our economy and "international competitiveness." But that is merely to misunderstand economics and global competitiveness. Due to our pursuit of ineffective and ill-focused educational and economic reforms, the rude disturbance of our slumbers is the slamming of the door on the American dream.

    — William J. Mathis
    Washington Post Answer Sheet
    2010-12-12
    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/answer-sheet/guest-bloggers/what-international-test-scores.html?referrer=emaillink


    INDEX OF RESEARCH THAT COUNTS


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