Thursday, August 9, 2012

Three over-arching reasons why US students perform below other countries on academic assessment tests. Do you agree or disagree? Does it matter?

Below are three conclusions from Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, regarding the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam that was given to a sample of students around the world. As always, be aware of an authors biases when interpreting data. HERE are the results of the test. (HT: Conversable Economist for this blog subject)

The over-arching themes for each one are interesting to me.  The first two certainly go against much of the conventional wisdom as practiced in the US. Specifically, we place too much emphasis on testing and the tension we have in the Public vs Private (or, in the middle, Charter) debate.  He hurt my feelings with the 3rd one, so I won't address that one---LOL!

What do you think? Is he on or off the mark? 

What are some common factors across the other countries where the education systems seem to be outperforming the U.S. education system? (The question is posed by Tim Taylor)
1. Exit exams. Perhaps the best-documented factor is that students perform at higher levels in countries (and in regions within countries) with externally administered, curriculum-based exams at the completion of secondary schooling that carry significant consequences for students of all ability levels. Although many states in the United States now require students to pass an exam in order to receive a high-school diploma, these tests are typically designed to assess minimum competency in math and reading and are all but irrelevant to students elsewhere in the performance distribution. In contrast, exit exams in many European and Asian countries cover a broader swath of the curriculum, play a central role in determining students’ post secondary options, and carry significant weight in the labor market. As a result, these systems provide strong incentives for student effort and valuable information to parents and other stakeholders about the relative performance of secondary schools. The most rigorous available evidence indicates that math and science achievement is a full grade-level equivalent higher in countries with such an exam system in the relevant subject.

2. Private-school competition. Countries vary widely in the extent to which they make use of the private sector to provide public education. In countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands, and (more recently) Sweden, for example, private schools receive government subsidies for each student enrolled equivalent to the level of funding received by state-run schools. Because private schools in these countries are more heavily regulated than those in the United States, they more closely resemble U.S. charter schools, although they typically have a distinctive religious character. In theory, government funding for private schools can provide families of all income levels with a broader range of options and subject the state-run school system to increased competition from alternative providers. Rigorous studies confirm that students in countries that for historical reasons have a larger share of students in private schools perform at higher levels on international assessments while spending less on primary and secondary education. Such evidence suggests that competition can spur school productivity. In addition, the achievement gap between socioeconomically disadvantaged and advantaged students is reduced in countries in which private schools receive more government funds.

3. High-ability teachers. Much attention has recently been devoted to the fact that several of the highest-performing countries internationally draw their teachers disproportionately from the top third of all students completing college degrees. This contrasts sharply with recruitment patterns in the United States. Given the strong evidence that teacher effectiveness is the most important school-based determinant of student achievement, this factor probably plays a decisive role in the success of the highest-performing countries. Unfortunately, as education economist Dan Goldhaber of the University of Washington has pointed out, the differences in teacher policies across countries that have been documented to date “do not point toward a consensus about the types of policies—or even sets of policies—that might ensure a high-quality teacher workforce.”
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