PISA: U.S. has fewer high flyers

It’s PISA Day! Once again, U.S. students score at the international average among developed nations that take the exam.

“Our economic competitors, including Japan, Korea, and Germany,” score much higher, notes Mark Schneider on The Quick and the Ed. “What should scare us is the low percentage of students in the highest levels of performance (PISA level 5 and above).”

The U.S. has concentrated on leaving no child behind. NAEP “scores of African Americans, Hispanics, and low-income fourth and eighth graders in reading and math have leaped upward,” but  “the percentage of students who score at NAEP’s advanced level has stagnated.”

Child poverty doesn’t explain U.S. mediocrity, argues Mike Petrilli on Flypaper. The U.S. does better in reading, which is far more linked to parental education, than in math, which is more school-dependent.

The U.S. is about average for child poverty for countries in the survey, adds Marc Tucker, director of the Center on Education and the Economy.  Diversity doesn’t explain it either. Five PISA countries — some with higher scores have a higher percentage of immigrant students.

Others say that the U.S. is unique because in that it educates everyone and the countries listed among the top performers only educate their elite. In fact, the dropout rate in our high schools is around 25 percent, while some of the top performers are graduating close to 90 percent of the students who enter their high schools. It is they who are educating everyone.

Top-performing countries invest heavily in teachers’ skills, says Tucker. Some let only the best students go into teaching.

International test scores show U.S. prosperity is at risk, argues Tucker in a Washington Post debate with anti-tester Valerie Strauss.

U.S. high school students have trouble applying skills to real-world problems, writes Dana Goldstein on Slate.

One math activity asked students to compare the value of four cars, using a chart showing the mileage, engine capacity, and price of each one. American kids were especially bad at problems like this, in which they were not provided with a formula, but had to figure out how to manipulate the numbers on their own.

A reading activity asked test takers to read a short play, and then write about what the characters were doing before the curtain went up. The challenge is that the question prompts students to envision and describe a scene not actually included in the text itself. These are good questions that most of our kids should be able to tackle—we want analytical, creative children, not just kids who are good at memorization.

The “Common Core is focused on greater depth and less breadth,” so it  “probably will help our kids do better on exams like PISA,” Goldstein writes. But it will take more than that.

Learning patience

Patience is a lost skill in the digital age, writes Jessica Lahey in The Atlantic. And it’s a virtue, she argues.

Many English teachers no longer ask students to read novels, she writes. To “ease homework loads” and make time for “problem- or project-based learning,” they assign short stories and essays. A story can’t replicate the journey of a novel, Lahey writes.

The experience of reading Great Expectations is fulfilling in part because of the wait for answers. My students clamor to know who Pip’s benefactor is and whether or not he will end up with Estella, but when we find out together, after weeks of travel along Pip’s journey, the answers are just that much more delicious.

At Hanover High School (New Hampshire), ninth-grade science teachers spend a month on a forensics unit created by teachers John Phipps and Casey Milender. Students analyze a crime scene, collect data and analyze the information for weeks.

As Milender describes it, “The combination of the quick answers they find in a day, such as in a luminol lab and a blood typing lab, and the more complex answers that take weeks, such as the blood spatter analysis based on geometry, give the kids gratification during the project, but they really can’t draw the larger conclusions until the end, when they put all these pieces together.”

My older son has been wrestling with the challenges of this unit, and the sustained patience, engagement and curiosity I’ve overheard in my carpool have been a wonder to behold.

Learning to wait for the full story before reaching a conclusion based on all the evidence builds “confident and brave thinkers,” Lahey writes.

Study: Most 3rd graders are below average

By the age of eight, only a third of students have grade-level literacy, math and science skills, according to The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success. The Casey Foundation report used federal data to track 13,000 children from kindergarten through middle school.

The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Kindergarten defines scoring at or above the national average on all three subjects as meeting cognitive development benchmarks, reports Education Week.

The data analysis showed that by 3rd grade, 56 percent were on track with physical development, 70 percent with social and emotional growth, and 74 percent in their level of school engagement.

. . .  19 percent of 3rd graders in families with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line—in 2001, that was $35,920 for a family of four—were hitting their cognitive development milestones. In comparison, 50 percent of children in families above that income level hit that mark.

The analysis also showed that 14 percent of black children and 19 percent of Hispanic children were on track in cognitive development.

This strikes me as the Lake Wobegon effect in reverse. Instead of all the kids being above average, two thirds are below average. If only half the middle-class and affluent kids are on track cognitively, “on track” must be too high.

The report advocates “quality birth-through-8 education programs targeted at children from low-income families” and linking preschool providers to elementary schools, notes Education Week.

New teachers are smarter

The academic caliber of new teachers is rising significantly, according to a University of Washington study published in Education NextThe average SAT score of first-year teachers in 2008 was 8 percentile rank points higher than the average score among new teachers in 2001. New teachers in 2008 averaged higher SAT scores than college graduates entering other professions.

“It is unclear whether this improvement reflects a temporary response to the economic downturn or a more permanent shift,” write the study’s authors, Dan Goldhaber and Joe Walch.

Teachers working in 2008 were slightly more likely to hold a master’s degree or higher compared to teachers in 1987.  Sixty-three percent of teachers in 2010 had graduate training compared to 45 percent 20 years earlier.

Some claim that test-based accountability policies have made teaching less attractive to top students. Not so.

. . .  the researchers compare the SAT scores of new teachers entering classrooms that typically face accountability-based test achievement pressures (grade 4–8 reading and math) and classrooms in those grades that do not involve high-stakes testing. They find that new teachers in high-stakes classrooms tend to have higher SAT scores than those in other classrooms, and that the size of this difference increased between 2001 and 2008. This suggests that more academically proficient teachers are not generally shying away from classrooms that face accountability pressures.

High-scoring math and science majors were more likely to become teachers in 2008 than in the past, but teaching still isn’t drawing enough math and science majors, the study found. Only 30 percent of math and science classes in 2008 were led by teachers who majored in math or science in college, the same as in 1993.

Most high school students with aspirations to teach don’t become teachers — or even college graduates, notes an Illinois study. The stronger students are more likely to persist. People who earn teaching credentials have “weaker academic qualifications” than other bachelor’s degree earners, “but those who actually became teachers were quite similar academically to non-teaching college graduates.”

Smart enough?

U.S. is above average in math, science

U.S. eighth graders in 36 states outperform the international average, reports the National Center for Education Statistics. In science, U.S. students in 46 states outscored the global competition.

However, even in the top-performing states — Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota — fewer U.S. students scored at the highest levels than students in several East Asian countries, notes the New York Times.

“It’s better news than we’re used to,” said David Driscoll, the chairman of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the national exams commonly known as the Nation’s Report Card. “But it’s still not anything to allow us to rest on our laurels.”

While 19 percent of eighth graders in Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, scored at the advanced level in math, close to 50 percent were advanced in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

Twenty-four percent of Massachusetts students achieved the advanced level, compared with 40 percent in Singapore.

France, Germany, Denmark, China and India did not participate, notes Paul Peterson, a Harvard education professor.

This global math achievement graph, via Education Week, shows the U.S. tied with Britain. South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan — you sense a pattern perhaps — do the best.

In science, the top seven performers globally are: Singapore, Massachusetts, Taiwan, Vermont, South Korea, Japan and New Hampshire.

Arguing like a scientist

Learning to “argue, question and communicate more like real scientists” may help students understand scientific concepts more deeply, researchers believe.

Both the Common Core State Standards for reading and mathematics and the Next Generation Science Standards have increased the focus within their disciplines on skills such as constructing and evaluating arguments, complex communications, disciplinary discourse, and critical thinking, said James W. Pellegrino, a co-director of the Learning Sciences Research Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

“Although some think of these as general cognitive competencies, it turns out that reasoning and argumentation have to be disciplinary-based,” Mr. Pellegrino said. “Reason and argumentation in literature is not the same as it is in history, is not the same as it is in science.”

Florida State University’s laboratory school and local Gainesville-area secondary schools are testing a new method to teach reason and argumentation, reports Education Week. In “argument-driven inquiry,” small groups of 8th graders choose how to investigate a problem, run experiments, analyze data and “develop arguments to present to the rest of the class.”

Based on those discussions, the students may collect more data, reflect on their findings, and write up an “investigation report” that has to go through a double-blind peer review process, modeled on the peer review boards that professional journals use to screen scientific papers submitted for publication. Each student then revises his or her work and submits a final report.

In a pilot comparison study of 265 8th grade students in 16 classes at both the laboratory school and regular district-run schools, researchers at the university’s Center for Educational Research in Mathematics, Engineering, and Science found students using the traditional lab model engaged in more structured lab tasks than those in the argument-driven labs, but the latter labs went deeper during each task.

. . . After a year, the students in both lab models significantly improved their knowledge of scientific concepts, but only the students in the argument-driven inquiry labs had improved in science writing and in their understanding of the nature and development of science knowledge. Moreover, the students who were taught in the pilot labs showed nearly twice as much improvement in their ability to use and generate scientific explanations and arguments as the students in the traditional labs.

Another study looked at traditional science labs. Researchers found that “middle and early high school students often avoid setting a hypothesis that could be rejected, try to design and conduct experiments that would confirm biases they already hold, and reject evidence from an experiment that contradicts what they thought going into it.” Even when 8th graders entered a “scientifically accurate” interpretation of  data, many “privately—and incorrectly—interpreted the results to confirm their initial hypotheses.”

More try STEM majors — and quit

More students are trying — and quitting — STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) majors, reports USA Today.

Interest is up, says UCLA Professor Mitchell Chang. Persistence is not.

Many students aren’t prepared for the rigors of introductory chemistry and calculus, says Clemencia Cosentino de Cohen, a senior researcher at Mathematica Policy Research. Women are more likely to drop the major.

“If women get a B, they think they’re failing. A man gets a B, and he’s happy. They say they’re acing the class,” Cosentino says. “Women who go into hard sciences, they’re very driven, they’re very high achieving, and if they’re not performing at that very top level, they become discouraged, and they think that it is not for them.”

Tough grading in science classes leads to attrition, a 2010 Cornell study found. STEM students realize they can work less and earn higher grades in liberal arts courses.

The S in STEM has been oversold, writes Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews.

“Employers are paying more, often far more, for degrees in the fields of technology, engineering and mathematics (TEM),” College Measures President Mark Schneider wrote in his report, “Higher Education Pays: But a Lot More for Some Graduates Than for Others.”

But “evidence does not suggest that graduates with degrees in biology earn a wage premium — in fact, they often earn less than English majors,” Schneider wrote. “Graduates with degrees in chemistry earn somewhat more than biology majors, but they do not command the wage premium typically sought by those who major in engineering, computer/information science, or mathematics.”

A TEM bachelor’s degree qualifies a graduate for a good job. An S bachelor’s degree usually isn’t enough on its own, though it can be the first step to a medical degree.

Streaming on aquatic life

oceans There are lots of good science videos for children out there, says Mike Petrilli. His 10 best streaming videos on aquatic life start with Disneynature’s Oceans, “a spectacular story about remarkable creatures under the sea.”

The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans has eight 45-minute episodes. “David Attenborough narrates this definitive exploration of the marine world, from the familiar to the unknown, revealing the sea and its communities at their most fearsome and alluring.”

In Turtle: The Incredible Journey, “a loggerhead turtle swims from a beach in Florida across the Atlantic Ocean, encountering stunning sea creatures as well as serious hazards created by modern man.”

The periodic table in song

In The Elements, Tom Lehrer has fun with the periodic table.