Group To Launch New International Assessment

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Educators and policymakers will have one more indicator of how well U.S. high school students match up against their counterparts around the world, thanks to a new international assessment to be launched next year.

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, unveiled recently by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, will test 15-year-olds in 32 countries to determine their practical and cumulative knowledge in three subjects: reading, mathematics, and science.

"This will be a very valuable indicator," said Eugene H. Owen, the director of the International Studies Program at the National Center for Education Statistics and the chairman of the OECD committee that recommended the test. "We were very happy with [other international assessments]; however, the [OECD] felt we needed indicators of student outcomes on a more regular basis."

The OECD is a coalition of 29 industrialized countries that share information and ideas on improving social and economic policies. PISA is intended to provide a common international framework for monitoring student achievement and guidance for improving education policies in the member countries.

Tests covering all three subject areas will be given every three years, with greatest emphasis placed on one of the three each time the exams are administered. The first test will cover reading in depth, with shorter sections devoted to math and science.

The two-hour exam will consist of multiple-choice and short-response questions.

In addition to member countries of the OECD, three developing nations--Russia, China, and Brazil--will participate, although they may not test representative samples of students.

Anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 students will be tested in each member country.

In the United States, participation by states will be voluntary, as with other national and international assessments. At least 38 states must participate in order to provide a representative national sample, Mr. Owen said.

Different From TIMSS

The test will be substantially different from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, which is the largest international comparison of student achievement conducted to date.

Under that program, which has been conducted three times since 1970, students around the world are tested at the U.S. equivalent of the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades in math and science.

Unlike TIMSS, PISA will not examine how well students have mastered a curriculum, but will gauge their cumulative knowledge in the subjects. It will also attempt to evaluate so-called cross-curricular competencies, such as students' problem-solving skills, motivation for learning, ability to work in teams, and civics participation.

The OECD assessment will "aim at assessing the extent to which young people have acquired the wider knowledge and skills in these domains that they will need in adult life," according to the program's outline.

One researcher cautioned that such a test may not be a valid measure of how U.S. students compare with others around the world. There are often vast differences in how countries select which students they will test, and the proportions of disadvantaged students vary greatly, according to Iris C. Rotberg, a research professor of educational leadership at George Washington University in Washington.

"The sampling difficulties [that have been evident in other international tests] are unlikely to change in this study," Ms. Rotberg argued. "The results would be most useful if used by individual countries for diagnostic purposes, without attempting to make comparisons."

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Page 5

Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Group To Launch New International Assessment
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Web Resources
  • Read a synopsis of "Measuring Student Knowledge and Skills, a New Framework of Assessment," the first volume in a series launched by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The series, known as the Program for International Student Assessment, uses international comparative surveys of student achievement and best-practice analysis to produce comparable indicators of student achievement.
  • Also from the OECD, new developments in education indicators. "Education and Human Resources Development" looks at recent trends in education systems in OECD countries.
  • Read a PBS NewsHour transcript "Planning Ahead," March 27, 1996, a conversation between IBM chairman Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. and Matthew Clarke, superintendent of schools in Poughkeepsie, New York. The conversation centers on the solutions American business leaders might offer to politicians and educators grappling with the question of how to raise the basic skill level of high school graduates.
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