Andreas Schleicher may be the most important name in education that you don’t know.
The German statistician has been the lead figure in creation, interpretation, and now worldwide use of several tests that are the basis for comparing how students in different countries are doing. Every time you hear someone say the United States is trailing other countries in student performance, you have Schleicher to thank.
And here he was, sitting at a rectangle of tables at the InterContinental hotel in downtown Milwaukee, telling about 20 well-known researchers and advocates that your community’s high schools should be taking the tests he pioneered.
Some already are. For the first time, 14 high schools in Wisconsin had randomly selected samples of their students take this test during the last three months. The schools hope the results they will get in June will give insight. That goes not only for comparing each school to the scores of South Korea, Singapore and those other high-flying places, but for seeing what a detailed analysis of the results says about each school.
The test is part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and it is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, based in Paris. PISA didn’t exist 20 years ago. It’s now used in about 70 countries and “economies” such as Shanghai, China. Schleicher is the chief education guy for OECD.
The burgeoning PISA program is taking on new efforts. Testing at individual high schools is one that Schleicher particularly talked up at the Milwaukee gathering. Results used to be released only on a national basis. Recently, several American states took part, so that Massachusetts, for example, could be compared with the world (generally favorably).
Getting high schools to agree to have 50 to 90 15-year-olds spend 31/2 hours taking the test is not an easy sell.
“Wisconsin schools are in a state of test fatigue,” said Jack Linehan, a retired superintendent of Shorewood schools who has coordinated the effort to get schools around the state to participate. There is so much testing already, and so many other pressures as well. Why add one more test, especially one that carries no consequences for students — they never get individual scores — and limited, if any, consequences for schools, whose scores will be made public but without any accountability attached to them?
But the 14 agreed to try it. Why?
Patricia Deklotz, superintendent of the Kettle Moraine School District, said her district, west of Milwaukee, is generally high performing. But, Deklotz asked, if they talk a lot about getting students ready for the global economy, are they really doing it? PISA is a way to find out.
“It raises the bar from comparing ourselves to schools in Wisconsin,” she said. “This is something that can benchmark us against the world.” Deklotz said she wants the school staff to be able to use the results to analyze how improve their overall practices.
One appeal for taking part in the PISA experiment: The 14 Wisconsin schools didn’t have to pay out of their own pockets.
The Kern Family Foundation, based in Waukesha County, is one of the leading supporters of efforts aimed at improving the global competitiveness of American schoolchildren. Kern convened the invitation-only conference in Milwaukee. And as part of its support of the effort, it is picking up the tab — $8,000 per school — for the 14 schools.
“The Kern Family Foundation’s role is to support and convene organizations focused on improving the rising generation’s skills in math, science, engineering and technology to prepare them to compete in the global marketplace,” Ryan Olson, education team leader at the foundation, said in a statement.
A second somewhat-local connection to the PISA initiative: Shorewood native Jonathan Schnur has been involved in several big ideas in education. Some credit him with sparking the Race to the Top multibillion-dollar competitive education grant program of the Obama Administration. Schnur now leads an organization called America Achieves, which is spearheading the PISA effort.
Until now, Schnur said in an interview, there hasn’t been a way for schools to compare themselves to the rest of the world. Participating in PISA is a way to benefit from what’s being done in the best schools in the world.
Each participating school will get a 150-page report slicing and dicing its PISA results. That includes analysis of not only skills but also what students said in answering questions about how their schools work. Do kids listen to teachers? Do classes get down to business promptly at the start of a period? Do students have good relationships with teachers?
Schleicher told the Milwaukee meeting that PISA asked students why they think some kids don’t do well in math. American students were likely to point to lack of talent as the answer. In higher-scoring countries, students were more likely to say the student hadn’t worked hard enough. “That tells you a lot about the underlying education,” he said.
Schnur said that when PISA results come in, “the scores are the first thing schools want to know, but actually the least important. What really matters is the much more in-depth learning about where you’re strong, what the students are saying, what they’re struggling in, compared to the rest of the world.”
Standardized testing is a hugely controversial subject. In the ideal world, it prods and helps schools, teachers and ultimately students. We don’t live in an ideal world, there is wide agreement that there is too much testing, and testing programs sometimes are counterproductive to good practices in schools.
Bringing PISA to the school level seems like an intriguing idea to me — but it will be a successful one only if, without adding too much heat to the pressure on schools, it sheds light on how to match the success of the places on the planet that are doing the best.
By Alan J. Borsuk, senior fellow in law and public policy at Marquette University Law School.
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