American schools, by holding steady on international test scores released today, are falling further behind the world’s top-performing countries in reading, science and especially math.

While alarms sound across the country about the state of U.S. education, voices from all directions are stressing that it is not the rankings that matter, but how school systems use the PISA — the

Program for International Student Assessment— to inspire stronger classrooms.

The Blue Valley School District is all for that.

Its five high schools have been taking a pilot version of an international test that can be used to compare their performance with those of top-scoring school systems such as Shanghai, Singapore and Finland.

Blue Valley’s high schools were five of 126 schools across the U.S., Canada and the United Kingdom taking part in the pilot program.

“We can see where our students truly perform and look at how we can take them to deeper levels,” said Lisa Wilson, the associate principal at Blue Valley Southwest High School.

On the surface, overarching U.S. scores for 2012 showed the nation to be performing statistically equal to the international average in reading and science but below average in math — same as the U.S. did in the previous PISA report for 2009.

But the number of countries that scored statistically better than the U.S. has grown. The number of countries, out of 65, scoring statistically higher in reading rose from nine in 2009 to 19 in 2012. In science, the number rose from 18 to 22. In math, it rose from 23 to 29.

Blue Valley’s average scores from earlier this year, when laid on the new international scores, are more encouraging. Roughly five countries out of 65 scored statistically higher, and the next eight were statistically equal.

“We were very competitive,” said Elizabeth Parks, Blue Valley’s director of assessment and research. But she also knows that factors identified within the schools’ reports, as with the international PISA report, are telling.

The data in the 564-page international report show common struggles among countries. Amounts vary, but all countries show disparities in performance between students of different socioeconomic levels. Blue Valley, with a relatively low number of economically disadvantaged students, would be expected to outperform the U.S. and most countries.

The PISA test is more rigorous than most standardized tests and will help the district measure how well it prepares its students for the critical thinking that will be demanded of them in the future, Parks said.

“This is a kind of test unlike any our students have taken before,” she said. “We’re still in the process of interpreting what it means and how it relates to our curriculum and what we do.”

Blue Valley Southwest student Reed Bowling, 15, enjoyed the challenge of the test and its demand for extended handwritten answers.

“You see how you process the answer,” he said. “You put down step by step how you got it.”

The PISA is administered by the

Organization for Economic Cooperation and Developmentand is given every three years to randomly selected 15-year-olds in the schools of participating countries.

The pilot test taken by Blue Valley students was developed by OECD with the nonprofit organization

America Achievesto offer high schools a comparable benchmarking test they can take annually.

Blue Valley took its first round of tests in May 2012, and just completed a second round in November with a new class of 15-year-olds. About 75 randomly chosen students in each school take the test, which lasts about 31/2 hours. The tests cost $11,000 per school, but donations from foundations helped Blue Valley keep the cost to $33,000 for the five schools, Parks said.

Teachers can use the test not only for its detailed scoring, but also for its rubrics that describe strong answers and the skills a high-scoring student would demonstrate.

Wilson said the schools are seeing strengths and weaknesses and looking for ways to drive students toward more complex problems and texts that elevate their level of thinking and “expand their ability to make the academic argument.”

By Joe Robertson

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