It’s been known for a while that U.S. students trail their counterparts in some other countries on academic performance measures.

But some Wisconsin high schools are actually performing above the level of the highest-performing “economy” in the world — Shanghai, China — according to results from an international exam.

Last spring, almost 300 high schools, 13 in Wisconsin, took the exam, which tests how well 15-year-olds in public schools around the world do in applied reading, math and science skills.

Before, randomly selected high schools across the nation participated in the Programme for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, and their results represented a snapshot of the entire United States.

But individual schools never knew how they stacked up against other countries — until now.

A new version of the PISA was created, the OECD Test for Schools, and made available to high schools in the United States, United Kingdom and Spain for the first time last spring. Participating schools received a 167-page report of their results this summer.

“We always talk about American kids lumped together,” said Andrea Thiry-Wenz, assessment coordinator for Howard-Suamico District near Green Bay. “It was nice to see where (Bay Port High School) stands.”

Eight of the participating districts recently met in Oconomowoc to discuss their results.

“Every school has something to teach and something to learn,” said Peter Kannam, co-founder and managing partner of America Achieves, a national nonprofit that partnered with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to coordinate the exam.

Candis Mongan, principal at Hamilton High School near Sussex, liked another participating district’s requirement for students to read three novels over the summer to prevent the “summer slump.”

Hamilton High School’s reading score was similar to the nation’s, which falls below 16 other countries, but performed near the top 10 countries in math.

While the test may come across as a way to boost bragging rights, the districts are learning more about their weaknesses than they do from state assessments.

“We’re accustomed to being near the top, but there’s a magnet school in Dallas with a 606 math score, six points above Shanghai,” Whitefish Bay High School Principal Bill Henkle said. “We scored 577.”

One way to improve, Henkle learned at an America Achieves conference in September, is by adjusting teacher assignments. In almost all countries that outperformed the U.S., the best teachers teach the neediest kids — not the case for most schools here.

“We’re guilty of it here even at Whitefish Bay,” Henkle said. “The best teachers teach Advanced Placement courses. But what about those kids struggling to pass pre-algebra?”

Cross-section of schools

Schools are not obligated to publicize their participation, so the Journal Sentinel was unable to obtain a full list of the participating schools.

Jack Linehan, a retired Shorewood superintendent who spearheaded the effort to get schools around the state to participate, said the participating schools represented the state’s diversity.

“(We) were worried we’d get a white, middle-class picture,” he said. “But we got a fairly good cross-section of Wisconsin.”

Why were 13 Wisconsin schools so willing to subject their students to yet another exam, this one more than three hours long, knowing that individual scores would never be released?

Because this past spring marked the first time the test was available to individual schools, and the Kern Family Foundation and other foundations covered the brunt of the $11,500 testing cost.

Part of the reason for the hefty price-tag: The exam isn’t simply multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank portions must be graded by hand.

The testing format, though expensive, is what some say makes it so successful.

“(The exam) is certainly a test of knowledge,” Kannam said. “But unlike the ACT and SAT, it tests how well they can use that knowledge.”

The deadline for schools to register for the OECD Test for Schools is Dec. 31.

By Kelly Meyerhofer

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