Broader International Studies Advocated
International comparative studies in education have to be more comprehensive in order to guide education policy in the future, according to participants at a conference held here this month.
The conference was organized by the Board on International Comparative Studies in Education, a panel set up in 1988 to advise the federal government on its participation in such studies.
"We're at a juncture where we have done and are doing international assessments and all of a sudden we have a new set of policy questions,'' said Michael B. Kirst, the board's chairman and a professor of education at Stanford University. "The whole community here is really at a crossroads in thinking about international studies and how we can use them.''
The meeting at the National Academy of Sciences was convened to begin to answer those questions.
Until recently, participants said, such studies have emphasized measuring student performance on common academic tests. But those studies often do not tell a complete story.
"Simply throwing up a chart of international comparisons doesn't cut it unless you look at other things,'' said Robert L. Linn, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
Also needed are data that describe actual classroom practice, said Floraline I. Stevens, the director of the program-evaluation and assessment branch of the Los Angeles school district.
"How can you know if student outcomes are valid if you don't know what's happening in classrooms?'' she asked.
Ms. Stevens said researchers should also examine how other countries deal with diverse student populations, and whether they include minority populations in assessments.
Ramsay Selden, the director of the assessment center of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said other crucial variables to consider are: socioeconomic conditions, resources available for schooling, cultural and community characteristics, family influences, school practices, and educational-program features.
'A Lot More Work'
To some degree, international studies are already beginning to take steps in the directions suggested by conference participants. As part of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study next year, for example, bilingual researchers will live in participating countries for eight months to document what goes on in classrooms as well as to measure student performance.
And, in an attempt to define what is meant by "world class'' standards, researchers for the New Standards Project, a privately funded effort to develop a national system of assessments, have undertaken comparative studies of other nations' education systems.
Lauren B. Resnick, a co-director of the project, noted that the Netherlands and France--two nations that score high on international assessments--both have almost identical curricula and textbooks.
The two countries use very different nationwide tests, however. French exams tend to emphasize traditional mathematics, while the Dutch assessments are more rooted in applied math.
Yet on cross-national comparisons, which are more traditional, the Dutch pupils outperform the French.
And, while both systems also "track'' students to some degree, the French include a greater proportion of the student population in nationwide exit exams. Only 56 percent of Dutch students even take that country's national assessments.
Such findings, Ms. Resnick said, suggest that "there is a lot more
work we have to do before we rely on major international comparisons to
say who's doing what well.''