Judging U.S. Students on a World Scale (May Not Be as Easy as You Think)

By Sean Cavanagh — August 11, 2008 2 min read
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There’s been a growing interest in recent years in holding U.S. students to a higher standard—specifically an international standard. As we’ve reported, more state policymakers and researchers seem attracted to the idea of states judging their academic progress against foreign nations by competing directly with them on international exams.

But Mark Schneider, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, recently spoke about the difficulty of making those state-to-nation comparisons at a meeting with federal oficials in Washington.

Schneider recounted that he had met earlier this year with representatives for a few education organizations, including the Council of Chief State School Officers, to talk about cross-national testing issues, such as how the material tested on international exams such as PISA and TIMSS compares with the U.S. test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The commissioner summed up portions of that earlier discussion on international education, while speaking before members of the National Assessment Governing Board, at their quarterly meeting in Washington a few weeks ago. NCES administers NAEP; the governing board sets policy for it.

Some have argued that as the U.S. moves into an increasingly competitive global economy, individual states would be well advised to measure themselves not only on NAEP, but on international tests such as as PISA—on which the United States hasn’t fared especially well. A recent study found that if states were compared against foreign nations, their performance would be mediocre, at best.

But Schneider said that one of the points that became clear during his discussion with researchers and policy advocates was that NAEP, TIMSS, and PISA measure very different things. (Some states have based their own state tests and academic standards, which dictate much of what is taught in the classroom, at least partly on NAEP.) Another issue is that the age groups tested on the American and international tests don’t line up, he added. Plus, participating in international tests can be financially costly, he told the board.

Schneider made it clear that he sees the international assessments as valuable. But he suggested that state policymakers should move carefully in deciding whether those exams suit their purposes for judging student progress. “There is a fundamental problem ... when we have different frameworks and different organizations running these things,” he told the board.

Scott Montgomery, a CCSSO official who has worked on international education issues, told me he agreed with many of the points raised by the commissioner. Cost is probably “the biggest drawback” to states getting their own individual scores on PISA, he said. He estimated that could run states $500,000-$700,000. No state gets those results now. But Montgomery said he knew of 8-10 states that are keen on the idea—cost perrmitting.

This is an issue to watch for in the years to come, as the push continues to hold American students to higher standards, in the name of promoting academic “competitiveness.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.