U.S. is average on international tests

On two international tests, U.S. students scored in the middle of the pack in reading, math and science, concludes an Education Department analysis. Curriculum Matters reports:

On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2007, both 4th and 8th graders scored above the scale average in math, and scores for U.S. students increased since 1995. Fourth graders in eight of the 35 other countries taking the test scored higher on average than 4th graders in the United States. Eighth graders in five of the 47 other participating countries performed better than U.S. students.

In both grades, top scorers came from Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Japan.

On the Program for International Student Assessment 2006, given to 15-year-olds, U.S. students were below the average scale score in math. That put U.S. students in the bottom quarter of performance for participating countries. They’ve been in that spot since 2003.

In science, TIMSS 2007 showed above-average scores for U.S. 4th and 8th graders scored above the average scale score in science, while U.S. 15-year-olds scored below the average on PISA 2006. Again Asian students led the world.

U.S. students were above average, but nothing special, in reading, reports the Washington Examiner.

Russia, Hong Kong, Singapore and parts of Canada lead the world in reading at the elementary level, while Korean students earned top marks at the high school level, according to the report.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan used the results to call for national standards.

National standards don't meet Virginia's standards

Virginia would have to “dumb itself down” to switch to proposed national standards, writes Robert Holland of the Lexington Institute in a Richmond Times-Dispatch column. Virginia’s well-regarded Standards of Learning are “concise, specific, and straightforward,” he writes, while “the national version sounds like an exercise in groupthink.”

The proposed College and Career Readiness Standards for Mathematics appear to be highly tolerant of the “new math” mindset of emphasizing conceptual understanding more and computational skill less. The work group announces confidently that “we have taken a step toward the next generation of standards that are aligned to college and career-ready expectations and are internationally benchmarked.” New standards “must be focused on deeper, more thorough understanding of more fundamental mathematical ideas and higher mastery of these fewer, more useful skills.”

So is learning the multiplication tables a useful skill? You wouldn’t know it from these standards, which are woefully short of grade-level specifics. However, there are multiple tasks that encourage the estimating of answers. Isn’t that what’s needed in the 21st century: best guesses?

Other states with strong standards may balk at switching to the common standards, unless the proposed draft is strengthened significantly.

Common standards: Where's the content?

A draft of proposed common core state standards for high school students is available as a pdf. The English Language Arts and math standards are supposed to provide “sufficient guidance and clarity so that they are teachable, learnable and measurable.”

Dead on Arrival” writes Core Knowledge Blog, which was the first to provide the pdf link.

. . .  the ELA guidelines offer almost no specific content and little that would be of use to teachers in planning lessons – or parents in understanding what their child is expected to know.

. . . Framed as a series of benchmarks students must reach “to be college and career ready,” the draft enumerates standards such as the ability to “determine what text says explicitly and use evidence within text to infer what is implied by or follows logically from the text.”

. . . Educators hoping for guidance on what particular texts are expected to be taught, or how to get students to reach the bland and obvious standards will be disappointed. On specific “texts” the draft says merely:

The literary and informational texts chosen should be rich in content….This includes texts that have broad resonance and are referred to and quoted often, such as influential political documents, foundational literary works, and seminal historical and scientific texts.

Core Knowledge founder E.D. Hirsch, Jr. complains that the standards ignore content knowledge. “They assume that the ability to understand literary and informational language is chiefly a how-to skill, whereas it is chiefly a topic-dependent skill that varies with specific topic familiarity.”

For example, students might have excellent reading skills but be unable to understand the sample text on covalent bonds because they don’t understand the science references.

This has been a hurry-up effort, so I’m not surprised at the lack of specifics. But I do wonder whether it would be better to start with the most-respected standards — Massachusetts’ — rather than starting from scratch.

The standards are a first draft that can be revised and improved, writes Common Core’s Lynne Munson. She hopes for “clear guidance and examples of the kind of novels, non-fiction works, poems, and plays that students should read.”

One standard shall rule them all

Though 46 states and Washington, D.C. are backing the creation of common math and English standards, figuring out what all high school graduates should know is a challenge, reports Politics Daily. Experts are trying to meet an end-of-July deadline.

The goal is for students to be career and college ready, meaning that they could make a C or better in first-year college classes without having to take remedial courses. Expanded groups of experts will set standards for grades K-12 by the end of December.

Federal standards efforts went awry in the past.  This campaign was started by governors.

“What’s really changed is that it’s almost always now teachers who say, ‘When are we going to get over this nonsense that math in Mississippi is different?’ “from math in another state, says Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has “pledged up to $350 million to help develop tests that would measure whether students are meeting the new standards.”

ACT and College Board experts are trying to develop fewer, clearer and higher standards than in most states. They’re looking at freshman course syllabi and exit surveys to determine what students need.

“They’re really looking for what students should be able to do to truly be ready for college,” says (Chris) Minnich of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the groups overseeing the process along with the National Governors’ Association and a Washington-based group called Achieve. “It means taking out some of the things that aren’t really important, including, he says, “whether or not kids should read Shakespeare. Most of the studies say Shakespeare is not critical.”

We’re going to dump Shakespeare? Lynne Munson of Common Core at the eagerness to “throw out possibly the brightest star of our literary heritage and replace it with … well, we don’t yet know.”

Of course, in a few years the loss will hardly be noticed, as someone wise once pointed out: “He that is robb’d, not wanting what is stolen, / Let him not know ‘t, and he’s not robb’d at all.” (Othello, Act III, scene 3)

Massachusetts’ standards are the best we’ve got, Munson argues. If common standards aren’t that rigorous, why bother?

Gadfly’s Mike Petrilli wants a broad liberal arts curriculum that goes beyond “the utilitarian and narrow drive toward college and work readiness,” which has been embraced by Democrats and Republicans.

While the right celebrates anti-intellectualism, “the left remains uncomfortable saying that there is a body of knowledge that all young people need to master in order to be prepared for life in our democracy.”

Before you know it, Shakespeare’s as dead as a royal Dane in the last act of Hamlet. History, being unessential for college or work, is history.

Time for national standards

It’s time for national standards in reading and math, writes Walter Isaacson in Time. The K-12 system is “burdened by an incoherent jumble of state and local curriculum standards, assessment tools, tests, texts and teaching materials,” he writes. States can lower standards to define every student, however illiterate and innumerate, as “proficient.”

Today’s wacky patchwork makes it difficult to assess which methods work best or how to hold teachers and schools accountable.

. . . These 21st century American Standards should be comparable to, and benchmarked against, the standards of other countries so that we can determine how globally competitive our nation’s economy will be in the future.

“Straightforward and sensible,” writes Eduwonk. Commenters wonder: Why doesn’t Isaacson want mathematicians to help write math standards?

How to close the education gap

The oddest couple, Joel Klein and Al Sharpton, have advice for closing the achievement gap.

First, the federal government, working with the governors, should develop national standards and assessments for student achievement. Our current state-by-state approach has spawned a race to the bottom, with many states dumbing down standards to make it easier for students to pass achievement tests. Even when students manage to graduate from today’s inner-city high schools, they all too frequently are still wholly unprepared for college or gainful employment.

Second, the federal government should take most of the more than $30 billion it now spends on K-12 education and reposition the funding to support the recruitment and retention of the best teachers in underserved urban schools.

In the Washington Post, Diane Ravitch urges Arne Duncan to scrap No Child Left Behind.

How ‘we can’ educate children

KIPP founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin writes about What ‘Yes, We Can’ Should Mean for Our Public Schools in the Washington Post.

. . . Obama could establish a paradigm-shifting goal — ensuring that within 10 years every child in America will be on track to earning a college degree or completing a meaningful career training program. . . .

· Second, perhaps the single greatest lever for raising expectations and achievement for all children in America would be the creation of national learning standards and assessments. . . .

· Third, as president, Obama could help build enthusiasm and respect for all who enter the teaching profession. . . .

· Fourth, we should assess teachers on their demonstrated impact on student learning, not whether they hold a traditional teacher certification. . . .

Finally, we urge Obama to follow through on his campaign pledge to double federal funding for public charter schools with proven results. Because of technicalities in state laws, successful charter schools looking to open new campuses are often ineligible for federal money set aside for new charter schools.

One and three don’t mean much: They’re about talk, not action. However, two and four — national standards and assessing teachers on the basis of performance — would be a significant policy change. I support both ideas, though I don’t think the feds should be telling districts how to pay teachers. On charter schools, the action now is expanding the successful schools — not necessarily in opening brand-new ones.

Obama would have to work hard to get the states to accept national standards, presumably as part of a shiny, new No Child Left Behind.

Eduwonk thinks national standards aren’t a signficant lever for change. Flypaper is all for ‘em and thinks it’s now a possible dream.