Assessment tests must measure performance against students around the world, not just the country

Educators need to have a clear understanding of how well we’re educating students, not just in comparison to other students within the region or the nation but throughout the world.

As the country moves beyond the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) era of high-stakes, low-utility assessments, a national debate is ensuing about what an assessment program should look like and, in some cases, whether we should have standardized assessments at all. The criticism of testing is understandable. The nature of the NCLB assessments created a culture of “teaching to a test” that did little to prepare students for life beyond high school.

As the superintendent of the Howard County Public School System, I have committed to my community that our schools will fulfill their promise of preparation. This promise goes beyond high-stakes, end-of-course assessments and even college and career readiness. We owe it to our students to help them develop the habits of mind needed to thrive in a dynamic and changing world. And while we’re uncertain what the world will demand of its workforce in 2026, when today’s kindergarten students graduate from high school, we must still begin to prepare them for such a world in today’s classrooms.

To deliver on our promise, we need to have a clear understanding of how well we’re educating students, not just in comparison to other students within the region or the nation but throughout the world.

On Tuesday, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development will release the latest worldwide results for the PISA exam (Program for International Student Assessment), establishing new benchmarks for comparing how well schools in the United States are preparing students in relation to other participating countries. Previous releases of the PISA results have been sobering for the United States, spawning much debate over how to keep our public education system relevant and competitive.

While the PISA results will tell us how we’re doing as a whole, the results will fall short of providing any actionable feedback for individual states and local school systems.

Benchmarking internationally surely has much greater value than the benchmarking that states were able to do through the NCLB exams. And benchmarking internationally can provide powerful information on the teaching and learning in our schools. That is why the Howard County Public School System plans to participate in a variant of the PISA exam, the OECD Test for Schools, in February. A small sample of 15-year-olds from each of our high schools will be selected to take the 3.5-hour test. This assessment, piloted last school year and available to schools across the nation for the first time this year, will enable individual high schools to benchmark against the worldwide PISA results in reading, math and science. To learn even more from this assessment, we also are joining a network of other schools taking the OECD test, an effort led by national nonprofit America Achieves so participating schools can learn from each other. The Howard school system is the first in Maryland to participate this school year.

Beyond the ranking of schools against the more than 70 countries that administer the PISA exam, the test will help us better understand how well we’re preparing students to read complex text, think critically and solve real-world problems.

There is no way to know how well we will do on this exam. But if we are serious about preparing students to succeed in tomorrow’s world, this assessment gives us a window into how well we’re educating our students compared to their peers around the globe. And it will help us identify areas where we must do a better job.

By Renee Foose, the superintendent for Howard County Public Schools.

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