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December 8, 2017

US 4th-graders earn a B+ in reading

American fourth-graders are good, not great, readers. But they clearly know their way around the Internet. At least that’s one of the lessons to take away from the latest international assessment of nine-year-olds’ reading ability.


Earlier this week, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released the results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Our fourth-graders scored 16th out of the 61 participating countries and jurisdictions, although just 12 countries outscored us by statistically significant margins. The five top performers in descending order were Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland and Finland.

Although we can’t claim number one status, our young students once again show they are more competitive internationally than either their 15-year-old siblings or their parents and grandparents, who barely register at the international average on tests of literacy. (As though the nation needed more evidence that we Baby Boomers need to get over ourselves.)

Yet the report was not without troubling signs. For one, the overall average was not significantly different from 2001, and we actually saw a decline from 2011 even while scores increased in ten countries. As we often remind CPE readers, one year’s data does not make a trend. But it does bear watching, particularly since the decline in this case was most pronounced among our low scorers, producing a widening gap.

As in past administrations of PIRLS, our fourth-graders performance is largely driven by their proficiency with reading literature. Only six countries outperformed the U.S. when reading for “literary experience.” In comparison, 14 did better than we did when asked to “acquire and use information.” The relatively weak performance in informational reading extends through adulthood in the U.S. — an issue CPE addressed three years ago in our report Beyond Fiction, which highlighted the importance of including non-fiction texts in the school curriculum.

Interestingly enough, however, our fourth-graders are really good at locating and using information online. For the first time in 2016, PIRLS assessed students’ ability to navigate the internet for information. IEA developed discrete web pages that students accessed through computer, and navigated through them to answer short multiple-choice or open-ended questions. (You can test-drive ePIRLS sample items here.) Out of the 16 participating education systems, only three — Singapore, Norway and Ireland — outperformed the U.S.

This begs the question: Why can our students read for information online, but aren’t as proficient in print? Hopefully, ePIRLS will prompt researchers to take a deeper look into this area. And while they’re at it, we need to know more about why U.S. schools seem to be able teach kids to read, interpret and analyze literature, but the skills aren’t transferring to their approach to printed informational texts. There’s an urgency to finding answers. Our nation has entered an era when consumers of information must increasingly rely on their own judgment and skills in order to discern fact from fiction. We need to figure out how to make sure our next generation is up to it.

CPE will soon be releasing a report that examines differences in the perceptions teachers in the U.S. have about their profession compared to their peers in high-performing Finland. The report, written by our research analyst Annie Hemphill, doesn’t specifically address reading instruction. But it does highlight some issues important to preparing and retaining good teachers who, after all, are a key ingredient in students’ academic development. So keep watching this space.

October 25, 2017

The new gender gap

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has focused a lot of its efforts into analyzing the science data portion of the most recent round of the international comparative assessment known as PISA.  In particular, they analyzed some of the gender differences that were found related to sciences.  The conclusion that many could come to when looking at the general data from the assessment is the gender gap has closed significantly in the sciences. The OECD average science score for boys in 2015 was 495 and girls was 491, resulting in a mere 4 point gender gap.  Another indicator to assess the gender gap in science is the percent of boys versus girls expecting to work in a science related field.  The OECD average for boys is 25% and girls is 23.9%.  The United States has a different gender gap with 33% of boys and 43% of girls expecting to enter a career related to science. These data points give a false sense that the gender gap in science no longer exists.  However, with deeper analysis it is clear that the gap is still very present but now is no longer about whether girls are interested in the general concept of science but which areas within science each gender finds more interesting.

The OECD broke down science-related fields into five categories to see if girls were more dominant than boys in certain types of sciences, which is exactly what they found.  For example, 14.4% of girls compared to 5.9% of boys expect to work as a health care professional.  It is important to note that this title includes professions ranging from nurses to surgeons, since nursing tends to be a heavily female profession.

gender gap graph 1

The opposite was true for the engineering and natural science fields.  According to the OECD average, boys were 2.4 times more likely to enter these fields compared to girls.  The gap was even wider for the United States where boys are 3.3 times more likely to enter the engineering field than girls.  This clearly show that a gap persists depending on the type of science- related profession a student wishes to enter.

gender gap graph 2

The third point that I want to highlight is the difference in “enjoyment of science”.  As you can see from the graph below, boys report higher than average enjoyment on all questions about learning general science.  Girls, on the other hand, report lower than average enjoyment on all questions.  When people enjoy learning about a subject, they tend to look for more opportunities to gain exposure. This is very concerning for girls, because while they may dominate in select science related professions, they do not enjoy learning about science as much as boys.  The OECD gave recommendations to help girls see the fun in science at home and at school.  Simple activities like encouraging girls to read nonfiction, which is read by significantly more boys, is one example of introducing girls to the interesting explorative side of sciences.

gedner gap graph 3

This shows how important it is to dig deeper into data and information about gender gaps to see where disparities lie.  With deeper analysis, the gender gap is undeniable and shows that boys and girls still view science very differently.  While the gender gap persists in the United States, it is obvious that it is an international problem that many nations are trying to solve.  This is an area where policy makers could look to their international peers to devise and test different solutions since it is a universal problem that everyone is trying to solve.

Filed under: CPE,International Comparisons,science — Tags: , — Annie Hemphill @ 11:11 am

June 27, 2017

The importance of social and emotional learning Part II: PISA results

The most recent report from PISA 2015 results is about findings regarding how the United States compares to other countries on social emotional learning.  These questions were answered by 15-year-old students based on their home and school life.

OECDSELThe first question was about general life satisfaction of the students.  The students from the United States were close to the OECD average for all 72 countries involved.  One interesting note was some of the higher performing countries, like South Korea, reported very low levels of life satisfaction among their students.  On the other hand, students in Northern European countries, like the Netherlands and Finland, reported the highest levels of life satisfaction.  These European countries were also some of the best academic performers with above average scores, although less than some East Asian nations. Researchers found students feel higher levels of life satisfaction when they report meeting friends after school, having the support of teachers and parents and engaging in physical activity.

Another indicator that they measured was bullying.  Students answered questions about a range of different types of bullying they may experience in school and how often this occurs.  Compared to other countries, the US students reported slightly more bullying than average.  One characteristic that helped lower the bullying rate in a school was when students reported that they felt their school had a strong disciplinary climate.

The third indicator the OECD gathered data on was school anxiety.  Students in the United States reported feeling more anxious about doing well in school, taking tests and preparing for exams than most other countries.  This is interesting because the United States is actually tested less than most other countries, and the tests students take here do not have as significant of consequences as those in other countries.  So the question is, why are our students so stressed?

While there are many factors that go into answering this question, researchers found that one reason could be tied to student motivation.  The students in the US reported some of the highest levels of motivation compared to other countries.  95% of said they “want to be the best, whatever [they] do” compared to the 65% OECD average and 85% said they “want to be one of the best students in [their] class” compared to the 59% OECD average.  While high student motivation is a good thing for student achievement, the types of motivation seen by students in the US could be related to higher anxiety levels.  US students have a competitive motivation.  It is more extrinsic than intrinsic where they want to do well to get into a good college or get good grades, rather than having intrinsic motivation to do well because they are interested in the subject.  Researchers could not confirm a causal relationship but they found that intrinsic motivation is related with lower levels of anxiety and extrinsic with higher levels.  So while it is great that students want to do well in school, it is important to know that reasons behind this desire to succeed.

Filed under: CPE,International Comparisons,PISA,research,SEL — Tags: , — Annie Hemphill @ 8:00 am

June 8, 2017

How do high performing education systems in other countries prepare and develop their teachers?

Earlier this week, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) released its report, Empowered Educators, which examined international research on teacher professional development and preparation.  Lead by renowned education researcher Linda Darling-Hammond, the research team reviewed systems in Finland, Singapore, New South Wales and Victoria in Australia, Alberta and Ontario in Canada, and Shanghai as guides for exceptional examples for empowering teachers.  After reviewing all the systems, there were four common elements:

1. Solid Base in Technical and Pedagogical Knowledge

In Finland, teacher candidates are required to complete a degree in at least one academic subject.  Then they continue onto a graduate level program where they learn pedagogic methods to teach their subject to K-12 aged students.  Darling-Hammond also noted that in some of these systems that were studied, the number of teacher certification programs is significantly lower than the U.S. model, emphasizing quality over quantity.  In Finland, there are only 8 programs that are housed in research universities and in Singapore there is just one.

2.  Teachers are Researchers

Teachers in Singapore are required to conduct research every year in their schools.  Teachers work in groups on a research projects that are then presented to the universities.  Many of the research projects are published in academic journals and top teacher researchers receive awards for their work.  In Shanghai, classroom teachers are also required to do research in their schools which often gets published.  In both systems teachers are given ample time in their school day to work on their projects, resulting in less time devoted to classroom instruction compared to the average American teacher.

3. Mentoring

In Finland, teacher candidates spend a large part of their university teacher preparation programs in model schools.  These schools are tied to the university and are staffed with very skilled master teachers that coach and model research based teaching practices.  In some cases, mentoring programs are extended to the first and second year teachers to continue to help them better their teaching practice.

4. Career Ladders

Shanghai and Singapore have created formal career ladders for teacher to advance through the profession.  Teachers each have an individual plan based on their long-term aspirations of continuing in the classroom, becoming an administrator or a becoming a policy leader.  These systems recognize that relevant professional development looks different for each level of teacher on the career ladder, and can tailor the sessions so that they have the biggest impact.  The formal labels recognize excellent teachers by labeling the top level as master teachers, and give classroom teachers a title to aspire towards.

All the systems studied implemented these four basic principles in some form.  They took research based ideas and manipulated them to fit within their local context.  The policies may not be able to be explicitly copied from one country or state to another due to the vast cultural and contextual differences, but the sharing of successful ideas can create a generally more informed policy.   Now the question is, how can the United States use these ideas to take our teachers to the next level?


December 12, 2016

U.S. Students have Strong Showing on International Math Assessment

We recently released an analysis of PISA scores, which showed disparities in achievement across student groups and mostly stagnant scores.  However, the U.S. had a better showing on another international benchmark, the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study).  TIMSS is different from PISA in that it assesses more classroom-based content, whereas PISA is more of an assessment of how students can apply skills learned in the classroom to real-world problems.  TIMSS assesses 4th and 8th graders, while PISA assesses 15 year olds, regardless of grade.

In 2015, TIMSS assessed 49 countries in 4th grade math, 47 countries in 4th grade science, and 39 countries in 8th grade math and science.

Students were assessed in math and science, but today we’ll just take a look at the math scores.

4th Grade Math

U.S. 4th graders scored 14th out of 49 countries, with performance that was statistically lower than only 10 countries and similar to eight countries, including Finland.  They also scored 10th highest in the number of students who scored at the advanced level (levels are low, intermediate, high, and advanced).  The percentage of students reaching high or advanced levels have increased steadily since the test was first administered in 1995.  Students showed greater strength in numerical functions, but had deficits in geometric shapes and measures.  They also scored higher in knowledge-based questions than items based on the application of knowledge to a problem and reasoning.TIMMS4th

8th Grade Math

U.S. 8th graders were 10th out of 39 countries, with seven countries having statistically higher scores and nine countries having similar scores.  Eighth graders also had the 10th highest number of students who scored at the advanced level, which has been steadily increasing since 1995.  Students were significantly stronger in Algebra than they were in 2007 or 2011.  Similar to 4th graders, 8th grade students were stronger at knowledge-based questions than application or reasoning questions, despite showing improvement in all three categories since 2007.


Demographic Factors

Schools with fewer students from affluent families and more students from disadvantaged families performed at lower levels than more affluent schools, showing that the U.S. still has much work to do to achieve academic equity.  Note that demographic data is reported by principals.


Schools with more native English speakers perform better than schools with greater numbers of students learning English in both 4th and 8th grades.  Schools with teacher-reported lack of resources and problems with school conditions also fared worse.  Students who felt that they fit in, or belonged, at school had higher achievement.

Other Contributing Factors

The U.S. is in the bottom half of countries on measures of teacher satisfaction.  Higher levels of teacher satisfaction in their schools is mildly correlated with higher student performance.  Teachers who reported having greater challenges, such as large classes or administrative tasks, actually had higher student achievement than those who reported few challenges.

International Data

Gender gaps still tend to favor boys across the globe, though in some countries girls outperform boys.  Interestingly, 8th grade girls in 21 countries outperformed boys in Algebra, though boys outperformed girls in number-based problems in 17 countries.

TIMMS1Source: http://timss2015.org/timss-2015/mathematics/achievement-in-content-and-cognitive-domains/

As debate continues about early childhood education in the U.S., the data from other countries is quite convincing that students who have formal education before entering the K-12 system outperform those who do not.  This data does not include the U.S.


Source: http://timss2015.org/timss-2015/mathematics/home-environment-support/

We still have work to do, but TIMSS shows us that improvement has been slow and steady for U.S. students.

Filed under: Assessments,CPE,International Comparisons,TIMSS — Tags: , , — Chandi Wagner @ 4:07 pm

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