We’ve often noted an odd dynamic in U.S. education. Parents have bought into the argument that U.S. students are lagging behind their peers in other countries, but the vast majority believe that’s a problem with other people’s children. We’ve speculated that this dynamic has something to do with two major sources of information they get about student performance: state tests of their own children’s performance, which often set the bar fairly low, and more rigorous international tests of student performance, which set the bar much higher but test only a sample of students and report their results anonymously. How else to explain the pervasive “I’m Ok, you’re not” phenomenon?
Now parents in some schools may be about to get something closer to the unvarnished truth about how their children are doing. One hundred U.S. schools will take part this year in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a test of how 15 year olds from some 60 countries are doing in reading, math and science. The PISA test, whose results come out every few years, fuels many headlines about the our middling to mediocre standing in math and science. In 2009, we ranked significantly behind 12 industrialized nations in science and 17 in math. Students in only 9 industrialized nations scored lower in science, and students in only four scored lower in math.
Schools that participate in PISA will be able to see how they stack up against other nations. Individual students might not get their results, but participating schools can get a much better sense of how well their students are prepared to compete in a global marketplace for skills. The news for some might be good, but if our national results tell us anything, it’s likely to be bracing for many.
Schools that take part are not required to make their results public, so it’s not yet clear just how much policy wonks like us—or the public at large—will learn from this exercise. Still, the participating schools will probably learn plenty. They’re making a brave move.
An Education Week story on the effort ends with a telling quotation from one of its organizers: “It often feels like someone else’s crisis and doesn’t feel like your own.”