The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

The PISA Test Doesn’t Tell The Whole Story About American Education

on December 13, 2016

Earlier this month the results of the most recent PISA test, which is given every three years to students in 69 countries across the world, were released.  As usual, the scores of American students were in the middle of the pack. Also, as usual, American government officials and education experts were disturbed by our low ranking and attributed it mainly to the ineffectiveness of our schools and their teachers.

Before we agree or disagree with that judgment I think we need to know more about the test, the students who take it, and the cultures of the countries involved.  Here are some facts:

The PISA tests reading, mathematics and science, but puts its main focus on one of them each time it is given. In 2015 the focus was on science.

The PISA does not test the specific information or skills that may have been taught in regular classrooms, but instead asks students to solve problems, identify unusual patterns, and write strong arguments.

The school systems, specific schools, and individual students to be tested are randomly selected by the PISA Governing Board.

The students to be tested must be 15 years old; their grade level does not matter.

As written, a PISA test would take several hours to complete, but each student is given a shorter, randomly assigned version of the test to be completed in two hours.

After completing the test students must answer a questionnaire about their family and community backgrounds, learning habits, and school experiences

PISA gives a score for each subject tested; a country’s score is the average of all student scores in that country

For the 2015 PISA the highest scoring countries and places with separate education systems were Singapore, Japan, Estonia, Taiwan, Finland, Macao, Canada, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and China, in that order.

The United States ranked number 28 out of 69 countries and education systems that participated.

Although I, too, would have liked the United States to score higher than it did, I think there are reasons besides the ones commonly assumed by the critics. For instance, when we look at the highest scoring places most of them are not only countries or cities where education is highly prized in the culture, but also ones where many children living in poverty get little or no schooling, and thus, never participate in a PISA test. In contrast, young people in some of the highest scoring places are likely to have long school hours, plus extra school classes in the evening.

Looking at the whole picture, I believe that cultural differences are a strong factor in determining the PISA results. For instance, in most countries doing well or poorly on the Pisa or on another school test determines a student’s future. Those who do well go on to a college preparatory high school; those who don’t have a choice between a technical school or ending their education altogether.

Personally, our family lived through the cultural differences in educational opportunities in one European country in the 1970s. Because my husband had received an award, our family went to live in a Belgium scientific center for one year. There our oldest son was enrolled at a nearby school for 9th grade, where classes were taught in Flemish, French, German, or Italian. We selected French because he had begun to study it in the U.S.; but it was still very difficult for him to learn everything taught in that language.

Near the end of the school year all students in his class had to take a test that decided  their future. As we expected, our son did not do well on the test; but when we went back to the U.S. the following year that didn’t matter at all. He was placed in a 10th grade class at our local high school, graduated two years later, and was accepted at a good university. His friends in Belgium were not so fortunate. After doing poorly on the test most of them had to settle for a technical school, while a few sought jobs instead.

According to others who are more familiar with foreign countries than I am, there are many other cultural differences besides educational success that affect a nation’s functioning, such as whether or not people have the power to speak their opinions, follow their chosen religion, move from one place to another, or have a hand in making governmental decisions.

In her book, “Reign of Error” Diane Ravitch refers to one researcher, Keith Baker, who studied what has happened in the 12 countries that participated in the first International Mathematics Test, given in 1964. The most important thing he found was that there was no relationship between a nation’s test scores and its economic productivity. When it came to creativity he discovered that the U.S. had more patents per million people than any other nation. What Baker sees as the deciding element in American culture is “spirit.” In short, he alleges that succeeding in school is not what makes Americans successful, but inquisitiveness, imagination, and persistence.

Unfortunately, those qualities cannot be measured in a test, but they can be observed and valued in any classroom.  Perhaps our government officials–local, state,and national– and education experts should visit schools once in a while rather than only examining  data.

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