Overtested? Not really

“The U.S. is not a country of heavy testing,” says Andreas Schleicher, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) education director.

Andreas Schleicher

Andreas Schleicher

Analyzing PISA survey data from more than 70 countries, Schleicher concludes that the U.S. ranks “just below average” in the frequency of standardized tests, writes Jill Barshay in the Hechinger Report.

High-performing Asian countries, the Netherlands and Belgium test often, he said. “More than a third of 15-year-olds in the Netherlands said they took a standardized test at least once a month,” reports Barshay. “In Israel, more than a fifth said they took a monthly standardized test.”

Only 2 percent of U.S. students take standardized tests every month, while the OECD average is 8 percent.

Ninety-seven percent of U.S. 15-year-olds said they took a standardized test once or twice a year. That’s “about the same share as in Finland,” writes Barshay.

Perhaps Finnish schools spend less time on test prep.

German schools improve — for low achievers


Immigrant children learn German in a “welcome” class at a Berlin school. Credit: Fabrizio Bensch, Reuters

Germany has increased test scores while decreasing inequality, writes Carly Berwick in The Atlantic.

“PISA shock” hit Germany in 2000, when students scored below the international average (and below the U.S.)  in all three tested subjects.

Among the OECD countries,German schools posted the largest gap between top and bottom quartile students. Students with immigrant parents were much less likely to qualify for the college-prep track.

Germany’s reform efforts included the creation of national standards and standards-based tests for students in grades three and eight, which sounds much like the U.S. approach. But unlike the U.S., Germany doesn’t penalize schools for poor performance, nor does it publicize school-level test scores. Experts say its focus instead on providing school-based support, and monitoring and targeting the most disadvantaged students has allowed it to improve performance.

By 2012, German students scored above the OECD average, in part due to “dramatic increases” in math scores for disadvantaged students.

Some parts of Germany are phasing out the lowest high school track, which led only to low-wage jobs.

While Germany has reduced inequality, it’s done little for its high achievers, write Fordham’s Checker Finn and Brandon Wright.

Since 2009, “the percentage of German top scorers has dropped in every math and science measure across age groups—fourth grade, eighth grade, and age 15—as well as fourth grade reading.”

Mediocre U.S. scores: Don’t blame poverty

When U.S. students post mediocre scores on international tests, poverty is “the elephant in the room,” says American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. Others point to a “poverty crisis” rather than an “education crisis.”

The elephant is not in the room, write Michael Petrilli and Brandon Wright in Education Next. U.S. schools do as well — or poorly — educating low-income students as other countries. Furthermore, U.S. children aren’t more likely to be poor: Those sky-high child poverty rates really are measuring inequality rather than absolute poverty.

Overall, the U.S. rates 28th in math proficiency for advantaged students among the 34 countries in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Disadvantaged U.S. students rank 20th compared to similar students in other PISA countries.

Our advantaged students may do better than poor kids here, but they don’t outperform similar students in developed countries.

While income inequality is high in the U.S., absolute poverty is not especially high, Petrilli and Wright argue.  Including all forms of income, including welfare benefits, the U.S. poverty rate is lower than Britain’s, the same as Germany’s and “barely higher than Finland’s.”

Poverty drags down performance here — and everywhere, they conclude.  The U.S. is not an outlier.

Socioeconomic disadvantage — such as few books in the home — explains some of the gap in scores, according to a report  by three economists. “Once we adjust for social status, we are doing much better than we think,” Stanford’s Martin Carnoy told the New York Times.

“There is no way you can blame socioeconomic status for the performance of the United States,”  countered Andreas Schleicher, who runs PISA for the OECD. “When you look at all dimensions of social background, the United States does not suffer a particular disadvantage.”

According to OECD’s disadvantage index, which includes “parental education and occupation, household wealth, educational resources at home and other measures of social and economic status,” less than 15 percent of U.S. students “come from the bottom rung of society,” reports the Times. “And yet, Mr. Schleicher found, 65 percent of principals in American schools say at least 30 percent of their students come from disadvantaged families, the most among nations participating in the PISA tests.”

Finland: Girls read well, but not boys


Finnish boys don’t read significantly better than U.S. boys, according to the international PISA exam.

For all those sick of hearing about how great Finnish schools are, here’s a fun fact from the new Brown Center Report: Finnish girls do well in reading, but boys do not. The gender gap is “an astonishing 62 points,” writes Tom Loveless. That’s twice the U.S. gap.

Finnish girls scored 556, and boys scored 494.  To put this gap in perspective, consider that Finland’s renowned superiority on PISA tests is completely dependent on Finnish girls.  Finland’s boys’ score of 494 is about the same as the international average of 496, and not much above the OECD average for males (478).  The reading performance of Finnish boys is not statistically significantly different from boys in the U.S. (482) or from the average U.S. student, both boys and girls (498).

. . . Consider that the 62 point gender gap in Finland is only 14 points smaller than the U.S. black-white gap (76 points) and 21 points larger than the white-Hispanic gap (41 points) on the same test.

Finland’s PISA success has been cited by advocates of various policies such as “teacher recruitment, amount of homework, curriculum standards, the role of play in children’s learning, school accountability, or high stakes assessments,” writes Loveless.

Advocates pound the table while arguing that these policies are obviously beneficial.  “Just look at Finland,” they say.  Have you ever read a warning that even if those policies contribute to Finland’s high PISA scores—which the advocates assume but serious policy scholars know to be unproven—the policies also may be having a negative effect on the 50 percent of Finland’s school population that happens to be male?

Usually, critics care whether a policy hurts some social groups, even it benefits others, he writes.

Where is the reading gender gap relatively small? Japan and South Korea.

U.S. kids do more homework, learn less

 U.S. teens spend more time on homework, but learn less than students in other developed countries, according to the Programme of International Scholastic Asessment (PISA).

American 15-year-olds do about six hours of homework per week. In most countries, students who spend more time doing homework also score higher on the math exam, reports Libby Nelson on Vox. But, in the U.S., “doing more homework correlated with slightly lower scores.”

I wonder if math homework is different in the U.S. than math homework in Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore, where math scores are high and doing more homework seems to pay off.

Are U.S. students more likely to exaggerate how much they actually study?

And why is the homework payoff so much lower in high-scoring Shanghai?

U.S. teens are so-so at financial literacy

Most U.S. 15-year-olds don’t understand personal finance issues such as taxes, loans or savings, according to an international test of financial literacy.

U.S. students were about average on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) assessment. Shanghai-China students showed the most financial savvy, followed Belgium (Flemish), Estonia, Australia, New Zealand, the Czech Republic and Poland.

Students did not do better in countries that teach financial literacy in school.

Sample questions are here. The shares question is “level 3” out of 5.

This graph shows the price of one Rich Rock share over a 12-month period.
Financial graph

Which statements about the graph are true?

Statement Is the statement true or false?
The best month to buy the shares was September.
The share price increased by about 50% over the year.

 

STEM gets broader — and shallower

In a vain attempt to make STEM appealing to right-brained students, educators are ignoring and alienating the left-brained math and science guys, writes Katharine Beals in Out in Left Field.

Efforts to Inspire Students Have Born Little Fruit, reports the New York Times. The story cites President Obama’s Educate to Innovate initiative and the lack of improvement by U.S. students on the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

Beals sees it differently.

. . . our schools, and our society more generally, are no longer encouraging and educating the kind of student who is most likely to persevere in STEM careers. These are the left-brained math and science types, more and more of whom face a dumbed-down, language-arts intensive Reform Math curriculum, and a science curriculum that increasingly emphasizes projects over the core knowledge and quantitative skills needed to succeed in college level science courses.

At the expense of encouraging this type of student, K12 schools are trying to broaden the appeal of math and science—by making them even less mathematical and scientific. And so we have algebra taught as dancefraction muralsphotosynthesis as dance, and science festivals featuring showy displays of gadgetry as well as theater, art, and music.

“The kind of student who finds these approaches engaging and enlightening” isn’t likely to persevere through a STEM major, she predicts. Those with the potential to be STEM specialists want to learn math and science.

At Auntie Ann’s school, the science fair used to require students to conduct an experiment. Now they can make a Rube Goldberg machine or a robot or research an environmental issue. “This year they’ve also connected it to an art exhibit to make it the full STEAM experience.”

It used to be the only time students did a research project and wrote a “serious paper,” she writes. Now students get full credit for writing 30 sentences. “The kids who did Rube Goldberg machines had nothing to write a paper about, so they had to write a biography of Rube Goldberg.”

Ranking the U.S. in soccer, education

If you think the U.S. is bad at soccer, “we’re even worse in education,” writes Fordham’s Brandon Wright.

U.S. math lag: It’s not just other people’s kids

Don’t blame poor kids for U.S. students’ mediocre performance on international math exams, write researchers in Education Next.  When the children of college-educated parents are compared, U.S. students do even worse than our international competitors.

Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

Some states — notably Massachusetts — compare well to OECD students, but they represent a small share of the U.S. population.

In Korea, 46 percent of the children of high school dropouts reach proficiency in math compared to 17 percent of U.S. children with poorly educated parents.

The U.S. ranks 30th in teaching the children of “moderately” educated parents. “The math proficiency rate (26%) for this group is again around half the rate enjoyed by Switzerland (57%), Korea (56%), Germany (52%), and the Netherlands (50%).”

Forty-three percent of U.S. children with college-educated parents are proficient in math. That’s lower than the rate for Koreans whose parents didn’t finish high school. “Countries with high proficiency rates among students from better-educated families include Korea (73%), Poland (71%), Japan (68%), Switzerland (65%), Germany (64%) and Canada (57%).”

“The U.S. education system is . . . weak at the bottom, no less weak at the middle, and just as weak with respect to educating the most-advantaged,” the analysis concludes. Or, as Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, our educational shortcomings are “not just the problems of other person’s children.”

Anxious Tunisians, math-mellow Dutch

Tunisian 15-year-olds are the most math-phobic, writes  Matt Phillips in The AtlanticArgentina, Brazil and Thailand are next on the “math anxiety” list compiled by the OECD as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) tests.

U.S. students are less anxious than the OECD average, though not as math-mellow as the Danes and the Dutch.

In the high-scoring Asian countries, there’s no particular pattern. Japanese kids are anxious, Singapore is moderately anxious, Shanghai is a hair above the median.

Math anxiety correlates with poor performance, writes Phillips. “Some believe this is because the mind is so occupied with worrying about math that it has less bandwidth” to solve problems.

“Combining a manageable amount of worry” with perseverance and a strong work ethic seems to work the best, according to an OECD analysis.