Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

International Education Achievement Tests…So What?

Cheryl S. Williams's picture

My Learning First Alliance (LFA) colleagues and I have been giving quite a bit of attention to the impending release of the latest results from the Organisaton for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which tests literacy, math, and science in 15 year-olds every three years. The United States has been humbled by past results that place us somewhere past number 20 in rankings of proficiency. We’re expecting that this year’s results will not show improvement and, as national leadership groups, have been strategizing how to respond on behalf of the educators and stakeholders we represent. 

I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps there are lessons to be learned from international comparisons that we’re missing.  A few random thoughts follow:

  • In the past we, as Americans, were quite convinced that we were superior to others around the globe.  Now we know we’re not.
  • Because we, as a country, have been blessed with abundant natural resources, two friendly neighboring countries, and the security of the protective boundary of two large oceans, we’ve believed that we could be self-sufficient and secure in our prosperity.  Now we know we’re not and can’t.
  • Foreign students from wealthy families have flocked to our shores to attend our large and high-quality higher education system. These students have learned well, and if and when they return to their native land, put their US education to good use in upgrading their own country’s work force, education system and economy.  We should be proud of our contribution to global improvements.
  • Our participation on more equal footing with many parts of the rest of the world gives us the opportunity to be more humble and learn from those countries that outperform us on the PISA exams. As those of us in education know, teaching and learning is a reciprocal activity. Good teachers learn as much from their students as the reverse. The opportunity to learn is a gift we should accept with gratitude, and we should build bridges that foster collaboration in new ways with high-performing countries.
  • The PISA results provide an opportunity for us as a country to do some self-examination and make changes that will benefit our students, educators and communities. Change is never easy, but if it’s important to us to rank higher in international student academic test scores, we need to do the hard work.

One proviso that keeps coming back to me—Americans are too focused on competition in all areas of our lives.  The fact that US students don’t compete well with their international compatriots on standardized tests of math and science knowledge and literacy should inform how we make improvements in our education enterprise, not motivate us to beat the competition. In our increasingly complex global society, we need to learn from and with international partners and move towards collaborating in such a way that we all improve and make the world a better place for all of us.

Image from the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Alas, the upcoming PISA

Alas, the upcoming PISA scores will motivate us to neither "beat the competition" nor to ask the questions that would help inform improvements to the American education enterprise. And why is that? First, on a deep level, we feel no need to compete in terms of results. We've been at the top of the heap for so long it is inconceivable that we won't always be there, even if we don't work at it.

Second, why should we be motivated to ask thoughtful and probing questions about what the PISA results - or anything else - could be telling us...again...still? Why indeed. After all, we are far better at making rationalizations and excuses. Just look at our responses to every tell-tale report, evaluation and test result that comes along.

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