In our 21st century global economy, U.S. students need new skills and a stronger knowledge base more than ever before. Educators and communities across America are responding by shifting toward higher expectations, better instruction, and deeper learning.

As teachers work with young people to help them reach new academic heights, we need assessments that can benchmark students’ progress and success and support their continuous improvement. The new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Test for Schools (based on the Programme for International Assessment — or PISA) is helping schools learn from their own performance and the successes of the world’s top-performing countries and schools.

More than 100 U.S. schools volunteered to participate in a pilot of the OECD Test for Schools during the 2012–13 school year. Lessons learned from some of the global leader schools follow:

It’s not surprising that BASIS Tucson North (AZ), Fairfax County Public Schools (VA), North Star Academy (NJ), and Arroyo Grande High School (CA) stepped up to take the OECD Test for Schools, a rigorous exam that compares 15 year-old students around the world in reading, math, and science. These schools and communities embrace data as a vital tool. Paul Bambrick-Santoyo, Managing Partner of North Star Academy, says his teachers see data as a fundamental pathway for more students to learn.

Although the United States participates in the PISA, the exam on which the OECD Test for Schools is based, school-level results for international comparisons were not available until now. Instead only aggregate U.S. scores were available. Now we know that there are great schools and districts in America that are global leaders and have much that others can learn from.

Basis Tucson North (AZ): Outperforming the world The students at this Arizona school did better than the average student performance of every other nation that participated in the PISA in 2009. A peek inside the school shows a culture of relentlessly high expectations for all, where the “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” award goes to a student who once struggled but subsequently made great strides.

Fairfax County Public Schools (VA): Data-driven Administrators in this Northern Virginia district – where about one in four students is low-income – are using the data from the OECD Test for Schools to rethink their policies and practices. For example, they are analyzing it to identify pockets of success that they hope to replicate. And they also are combing through the data to discover areas of weakness that need addressing. Superintendent Jack Dale says his team is taking a particularly close look at why schools with similar demographics may have produced different results.

North Star Academy Charter School of Newark (NJ): Instructional leadership Although this Newark, NJ, school serves a disadvantaged population, the vast majority of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, students here performed at or above the U.S. average in all three subjects and did much better than comparison schools with students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. In reading, North Star outperformed all but nine other countries’ averages. The video above shows a teacher coaching session – part of the school’s strong instructional leadership program. It relies on frequent observations and meaningful feedback to improve teacher performance, which in turn improves student performance.

Arroyo Grande High School (CA): Achieving Students at this California school also posted scores that were similar to those of the United States as a whole, despite being significantly more disadvantaged than the U.S. average – about 40 percent of students are low income. Like North Star, Arroyo focuses relentlessly on helping its teachers get better. Lead teachers are in charge of professional development for the entire school, targeting it to specific staff needs. Students also have a real say in their education. Staff-student communication is a huge priority for the school, and students help set course and extracurricular offerings.

At each of these schools, you find students who are acquiring the deep knowledge and critical skills that all children need to succeed in this globally competitive era. None of these schools uses just one solution to raise student achievement. All rely on several ingredients for success: strong instructional leadership, meaningful professional development, a culture of success and high expectations, and a laser-like focus on continuous improvement.

The successful practices at schools that are global leaders can be adapted by educators, students, and families across the country who are working hard every day to bring about the changes needed to ensure every student gets the world-class education he or she needs and deserves.

Additional resources:

Participate in the OECD Test for Schools