PISA Results: Good, Bad and Ugly

By Stuart A. Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle

The latest numbers from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) have been released and not surprisingly the handwringing began before the ink was dry. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan used the word “stagnation” in his appraisal. Others were even more pessimistic. On the surface the performance of the U.S. students was dreadful. There was little joy to be found in being ranked 20th in reading, 23rd in Science and 30th in mathematics among the sixty-five tested groups. All of these results were either the same or worse than the previous test three years ago.

Fortunately a more careful analysis of the statistics revealed that some of the worst case scenario conclusions were misleading.

The scoring was hardly comparing apples to apples. In many cases it was not even apples to oranges. Contrasting the U.S. scores to those coming out of Singapore which had the best in the world was more like apples to aged Kobe beef. Singapore is a city not an entire country. Making the outcome even murkier was that low performing students and their families are often sent elsewhere in order to maintain the city’s lofty status. It was the equivalent of taking the highest scoring school district in America and claiming it represented the achievement level in all fifty states.

The bad

But before anyone begins chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” the numbers coming out of PISA are worthy of deep concern. When Latvia and Viet Nam rank above you in measurements of academic prowess there is little room for rejoicing. The United States spends huge sums of money on education in comparison to many of the countries that performed better in these assessments. Additionally after decades of national attention to the educational system it is troubling to see so little progress.

The Ugly

The blame game is clearly not bringing about improvements. Holding teachers, administrators, parents or even “the culture” responsible does not move the dial in a positive direction. Certainly, indiscriminately throwing money at the problem is not the answer. Many of the lowest functioning districts have the highest per student expenditures. But there may be a place where a surge of additional funding could be well placed.

A potentially rewarding investment

It came during a casual conversation about the latest PISA results. It was never designed to be an earthshaking remark. In fact, it was meant to be more of an aside. But it resonated deeply.

“The difference between the state-mandated tests and the IB ones,” the speaker had a long history of teaching basic Biology 1 to high school freshmen and both AP and then IB Biology to some of the best students in the building, “is that every question on the state test can be answered in five seconds on the internet while the IB ones require responses that no simple web search could adequately complete.”

She was absolutely correct in her assessment. And this observation clearly illustrated one of the prime reasons for the educational malaise occurring in this country.

Educational policy makers have become possessed in their pursuit of a correlation between tests scores and student progress. That endeavor, however, will always be doomed to failure as long as the instruments being used are flawed and often inaccurate. In too many cases the tests that are utilized are based on the lowest cost to create, least time to grade and simplicity to administer. Little or no attention is given to finding the best measurement tools.

Enter the IB and AP exams. These tests are the exact opposite of assessing on the cheap. They require a huge personnel commitment on the part of the schools, extensive time to grade and evaluate and are not cheap to create. They measure mastery of material not memorization skills or the ability of teachers to prepare their students for the anticipated questions. At the conclusion of the AP and IB testing process it is far easier to accurately quantify the academic performance of the student and ultimately the teacher and the school staff.

If the American public is committed to improving education and has a willingness to invest significant funds in that pursuit, overhauling the end-of-course exams would be an excellent, if demanding, place to start.

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