Don’t ignore international assessments

The U.S. will once again see how our nation’s high school students stack up against their peers in 65 other countries in reading, math, and science when the 2012 PISA results are released on December 3rd. PISA results typically garner a lot of attention because it’s the only assessment that compares the knowledge and skills of high schools students in nearly every industrialized nation in the world in reading, math and science.

Unfortunately, the U.S. typically doesn’t compare well to other countries on PISA especially in math and science. In 2009—the last time PISA was administered– 23 countries outperformed the U.S. in math while 18 countries outperformed the U.S. in science. The U.S. faired better in reading by performing as well as or better than all but 8 countries. These results show there is plenty of room for improvement.

Critics often use these results to argue that our schools need to do a better job preparing our future workforce or risk an economic disaster. While others argue that results from international assessments such as PISA are meaningless and should all but be ignored. I’ll bet most of the rhetoric after the PISA results are released will fall within these two camps.

However, as I wrote in our Guide to International Assessments we should get beyond such rhetoric and use the results to learn from other countries on what is working for their students. And not just those countries who score higher than we do either. We should also look at those countries that have made the greatest gains and check out what changes they made that may have contributed to their newfound success. We should also look deeper into the data to determine which countries did a better job educating certain students. For example, CPE delved deep into PIRLS- 4th grade reading international assessment—and found that language minority students perform as well in the U.S. as language minority students in other industrialized countries. Similar analyses should be conducted in other subjects and with other student groups, too, to gain a better understanding of what is working in schools around the globe.

While PISA results should not be used as the sole measure of the effectiveness of our schools, it is one tool that should not be ignored. PISA provides valuable information on how prepared our students will likely be for life after high school. But other information should be used, such as high school graduation rates, college persistence and graduation rates, as well as unemployment rates for recent graduates to gain a greater perspective on how well our high schools are preparing our students. Just like PISA none of these measures alone provides a complete picture of the quality of our public schools but they each provide valuable information that should not be ignored. – Jim Hull

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