Perspective and context are needed as we enter the Common Core Era of 'school reform.' You will be asked by friends and acquaintances about your views on Common Core and about how US students compare to international students on International Test Scores. The article that follows from Diane Ravitch may help you answer those questions. Remember, the US high School system is not just for the top 10 percent of performers after grade 10 (as many international school systems require). So international test results are often comparing apples and oranges...
The news reports say that the test scores of American students on the latest PISA test are “stagnant,” “lagging,” “flat,” etc.
The U.S. Department of Education would have us believe–yet again–that we are in an unprecedented crisis and that we must double down on the test-and-punish strategies of the past dozen years.
The myth persists that once our nation led the world on international tests, but we have fallen from that exalted position in recent years.
Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Here is the background history that you need to know to interpret the PISA score release, as well as Secretary Duncan’s calculated effort to whip up national hysteria about our standing in the international league tables.
The U.S. has NEVER been first in the world, nor even near the top, on international tests.
Over the past half century, our students have typically scored at or near the median, or even in the bottom quartile.
International testing began in the mid-1960s with a test of mathematics. The First International Mathematics Study tested 13-year-olds and high-school seniors in 12 nations. American 13-year-olds scored significantly lower than students in nine other countries and ahead of students in only one. On a test given only to students currently enrolled in a math class, the U.S. students scored last, behind those in the 11 other nations. On a test given to seniors not currently enrolled in a math class, the U.S. students again scored last.
The First International Science Study was given in the late 1960s and early 1970s to 10-year-olds, 14-year-olds, and seniors. The 10-year-olds did well, scoring behind only the Japanese; the 14-year-olds were about average. Among students in the senior year of high school, Americans scored last of eleven school systems.
In the Second International Mathematics Study (1981-82), students in 15 systems were tested. The students were 13-year-olds and seniors. The younger group of U.S. students placed at or near the median on most tests. The American seniors placed at or near the bottom on almost every test. The “average Japanese students achieved higher than the top 5% of the U.S. students in college preparatory mathematics” and “the algebra achievement of our most able students (the top 1%) was lower than that of the top 1% of any other country.” (The quote is from Curtis C. McKnight and others, The Underachieving Curriculum: Assessing U.S. Mathematics from an International Perspective, pp. 17, 26-27). I summarized the international assessments from the mid-1960s to the early 1990s in a book called National Standards in American Education: A Citizen’s Guide (Brookings, 1995).
The point worth noting here is that U.S. students have never been top performers on the international tests. We are doing about the same now on PISA as we have done for the past half century.
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