Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Don't be Fooled by PISA

Last week results from the 2012 Program for International Student Achievement (PISA) were released, and basically stated students in the United States scored average in the areas of math, science, and reading. Well, we don't 'do average' in the United States, and calls from some education 'advocacy groups' started up again about how our country is slipping. Furthermore (they stated) these tests clearly demonstrate a system of education in the United States in decline. Even the Secretary of Education Arne Duncan talked about the "stagnation of student achievement" in the United States. Yep, last week it really was quite the circus when these results came out. 

The real fact is that students in the United States have never done well on international tests. According to Yong Zhao, a leading educational researcher from the University of Oregon, in the 1960s students in the United States scored near the bottom in virtually all categories when the First International Mathematics Study (FIMS) was conducted! So, for the last half century the scores have basically remained less than impressive. 

If students' scores on international measures have remained stagnant for the last fifty or so years (or even dropped as some might suggest), shouldn't we see some sign of that decline in the fabric of American society? The truth is that despite this fact, America continues to be the sole Superpower. Our country has the largest economy in the world and is among the wealthiest. And again according to Zhao, in 2008 the United States ranked first in the number of patents with 14,399, compared to 473 from China.

Perhaps the reality of the tests is that they either really don't matter, or that they are measuring the wrong things. Wonder which countries ranked among the top in creativity? Sweden was number one, and the United States was number 2. Here is another interesting tidbit of information that Diane Ravitch explains in a recent blog post while discussing an article published by education researcher Keith Baker. "The higher a nation's test score 40 years ago, the worse its economic performance on this measure of national wealth....".

So I think we need to consider whether or not we want American students to score better on these tests, and if they really matter. If the answer to that question is yes, then we probably [do] need to seriously rethink how we do schooling in this country. A greater emphasis on math and science is probably in order, and all the other stuff is unnecessary. Are we ready to jettison those programs that encourage creativity, collaboration, and teamwork? That would probably mean no more art, music, or sports (after all, in many of these countries programs like this do not exist within the confines of the normal school day). We are probably also going to need to spend more time having students take tests. You know practice makes perfect. If you want kids to be good at taking tests, then they should practice taking them. Perhaps we need to be more selective about who actually takes the test as well, after all a study done by the National Association of Secondary Schools Principals found that when controlling for poverty, the United States scored among the highest on the PISA. Maybe a better approach would be to present only selected data, as Time magazine pointed out in an article dated December 3rd. According to the report, Chinese students are outperforming the rest of the world. But, the data is not representative of China. It is representative of Shanghai and Hong Kong. This article points out the very interesting fact that in Shanghai 84% of students go on to college, compared to only 24% nationally.

The following day, an article in the Huffington Post had this quote from a leading scholar in Shanghai:
'"This should not be considered a pride for us, because overall it still measures one's test-taking ability. You can have the best answer for a theoretical model, but can you build a factory on a test paper?" asked Xiong Binqu, a Shanghai-based scholar on education.
The fact is that while we are busy trying to emulate countries like Finland and other Asian countries, some of those other countries are trying to figure out what it is about the American system of education that makes us so successful. That's right, while we are busy studying how to be more like Finland, China is trying to figure out how to be more like America.

At the end of the day, the PISA results most certainly provide an opportunity for a discussion of the status of the American education system. But they must be looked at in context of what they really represent and what they really mean. There is no mistaking the fact that there is room for improvement. In spite of the success, patents, accumulation of wealth and global influence in our country, we should continue to look for ways to make our system better. To rest on our laurels would no doubt be a national disaster in the making. However, to use the PISA results as an argument that we are in decline is just dead wrong. 

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