Learning from the Test

What the latest international results tell us about the state of American education.

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Of those who took the SAT and graduated in 2013, only 43 percent met the SAT benchmark of college and career readiness, according to College Board.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development released the results of the latest Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, last week. First administered in 2000, every three years the PISA tests 15-year old students in 65 countries in reading, math and science. American student performance has plateaued for the past decade, while performance in other countries has improved.

Our students are right at the average mark in reading and science, but below the OECD average in math. In fact, we have the largest percentage of low performing students in math. Twenty-eight other countries outperformed us in the subject, including Latvia. We are behind countries like Estonia in reading. And our students are performing at the same level in science as students in Lithuania. These still-developing former Soviet bloc countries joined the European Union in 2004 and have a per-capita GDP less than half of the U.S.'s. Meanwhile, Singapore and Hong Kong continue to top the list in all subjects.

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Though these results are a bit depressing, there are a few nuggets of hope. First, states like Massachusetts, which took part in the test, did remarkably well. The state's strong tradition of high academic standards, accountability for students and teachers to meet those standards, and its approach to expanding schooling options with charter schools is a model for the nation. While it might be hard to replicate the success of Hong Kong in the U.S., adopting the best practices of a state like Massachusetts shouldn't be as complex.

Second, while you can become a savvy reader by having parents who read and talk to you when you are little, math is something you learn in school. And the sooner you are exposed to math, the better you will do. Research from Northwestern University actually contends that early exposure to math not only boosts one's ability to master math and science, but also seems to be correlated with better reading skills. But you need a teacher who knows the subject and enjoys teaching it.

Happily, today there are tons of learning tools online that can demystify math. As Sal Khan, the dynamic founder of the Khan Academy, has demonstrated, much of the fear that we have around math stems from not having mastered the basics at an early age. If we want our high school students to do well in math, we have to start early and make sure they don't fall through the cracks along the way.

[Read Neera Tanden and Paul Reville: Taking a Page from the Bay State's Education Playbook]

Finally, offering the test directly to schools may make our school leaders and students pay a bit more attention to it and align what they teach with international benchmarks. Right now, the test is given to a random sample of students around the country, but any high school can sign up to have their students take the test in the spring of 2014. The OECD did offer the test directly to 100 high schools a few years ago. Charter schools like BASIS Tucson North in Arizona and North Star Academy in Newark (which serves a largely low-income student population) voluntarily gave the test to their students when it was last administered, and they topped the world on all three subjects. If they can do it, so can many of our other schools!

Though the national education debate remains focused on aligning state learning standards with the Common Core, tests like PISA offer a better glimpse into how competitive our students will be when they enter our increasingly global workforce. A smart first step for American schools to improve performance on the test would be to incorporate it into the annual schedule for 15-year olds and make sure our students understand why they are taking it.

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