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Education Analysts Say International Test Results Can’t Measure Everything for U.S. Students

Thursday, December 5, 2013 at 6:42 PM

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The newly released results of an international test rank America’s teens pretty far below many of their peers around the world. Students in Shanghai scored the highest on the test known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, with those of several other Asian countries trailing close behind. StateImpact Ohio’s Amy Hansen went looking for reaction to the results from some education analysts around the state and has this report

David Estrop, Superintendent of Springfield City Schools near Dayton, uses this analogy to describe the challenge that students face in preparing for today’s global economy.

“Now the new expectation is that students must not only know how to drive a car,” he said. “They now have to know how to drive a semi-truck.”

And if the results of the latest PISA exam are any indication, America’s 15-year-olds aren’t quite up to the task. 

The test is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Among the 65 countries where the test was given this year, The U-S ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading – with little change from previous scores. 

That’s not good enough for Greg Harris, director of the educational lobbying group StudentsFirst Ohio. He thinks America should rank at least in the world’s top 10 for education.

“One thing that’s a great disparity is that we’re a top five nation in educational spending,” he said. “But hardly a top 20 nation when it comes to educational achievement.”

But Harris envisions progress on the horizon.  He’s an enthusiastic backer of the new set of learning standards known as the Common Core, which Ohio and numerous other states recently adopted. 

“The whole intent is we’re not going to emphasize rote learning where kids learn breaths of facts that they don’t retain,” Harris said. “The whole point of Common Core is to go more in-depth on subject matter, to slow down, to develop reasoning and critical thinking.”

Estrop agrees those skills are good indicators of success that the PISA doesn’t measure. He says there are many questions about students’ ability and character that the test just can’t answer.

“Are they persistent? Do they have grit? Can they hang in there in the face of difficulty,” he said. “So the test can measure some things, but every test has limitations and some of those limitations can only be determined based on experience.”

Piet Van Leer of the research group Policy Matters Ohio, was previously a reporter and analyst the educational journal Catalyst Ohio before it folded.  He’s also skeptical of the value of traditional standardized testing. 

“I think we do rely too much on these standardized tests to tell us how we’re doing and I think that can be a trap,” he said. “It leads us to this alarmist thinking. I think we should draw the difference between urgency and alarmism.”

He sums up his skepticism with a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein.

”Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind.”

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Education, StateImpact Ohio

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