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Benchmarks Momentum on Increase

By Michele McNeil — March 10, 2008 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Achieve Inc.’s work in Peru. While Achieve is presenting some of its findings on academic standards in that country, the group is not studying Peru’s standards.

No longer content with the patchwork quilt of assessments used to measure states’ K-12 performance, top policy groups are pushing states toward international benchmarking as a way to better prepare students for a competitive global economy.

The National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and the standards-advocacy group Achieve are working both independently and together to examine how well states are doing compared with other countries and to weigh which yardsticks would prove most useful.

It remains to be decided whether states would participate in well-established international tests such as the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, or would measure their academic standards against those of other countries.

So far, however:

• The staff members in charge of education policy for the NGA want to put the issue before the governors this summer in a policy paper that would make the case for international benchmarking. Governors attending the NGA’s winter meeting last month talked briefly about the issue during a private meeting.

• The state schools chiefs’ association, along with the governors’ group, is exploring whether states want to take part in the next round of PISA tests in 2009. Participation in PISA would allow states to compare their students’ performance against their peers’ in other countries every three years.

• Achieve, which works with 32 states on improving high schools, is studying standards in other countries to see how they stack up with American academic standards.

All three organizations, which are based in Washington, are also spearheading the work of a new advisory group, made up of policymakers, researchers, and education advocates, that will study international benchmarking and what it might look like in a practical sense. The group, which will meet this spring, will advise the NGA staff members as they hammer out the policy paper to be given to the governors.

“State economies are highly dependent on having an educated workforce,” said Dane Linn, the director of the NGA’s education division. “States, education systems, and the people who work in schools must ensure that students are going to be able to take advantage of high-wage and high-skill jobs that are essential to state economies.”

But any push toward international benchmarks faces political pitfalls. Many educators and parents object to what they already see as an overemphasis on assessment and rankings. And even agreeing on a test could prove difficult.

Iris C. Rotberg, a professor of education policy at George Washington University, said any comparisons based on international tests, such as PISA, would be more reflective of the poverty in a state—or country—than of the quality of its schools or teachers.

“Making more comparisons and having more tests won’t solve the basic problem: We have a lot of kids living in poverty,” she said. “Governors can probably predict what their test scores will look like.”

Early Support

The issue of states’ roles in international benchmarking has been simmering for months. Last year, the NGA and the CCSSO recommended that the federal government, as part of the still-pending reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, offer grants to states interested in international benchmarking.

Also last year, Achieve—a group formed in 1996 by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based efforts to improve schools—worked with the global consulting firm McKinsey and Co. to compare Ohio’s education policies against those of high-performing countries, such as Singapore and Finland. (“Study Urges Top-to-Bottom Overhaul in Ohio,” Feb. 15, 2007.)


“This is something we’re definitely exploring,” said Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who made global competitiveness part of her “Innovation America” agenda last year when she was the chairwoman of the NGA.

Ms. Napolitano, a Democrat, said governors would talk more about global competition and benchmarking this summer at the annual education symposium for governors co-hosted by the NGA and the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, based in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The issue of workforce competitiveness is becoming more urgent for some, such as Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democrat, who said at last month’s NGA meeting that he was alarmed by implications for the United States of the growing percentage of citizens in other countries with postsecondary degrees.

“We’ve been lazily telling ourselves that we’re about educating all kids and that’s why we’re not competing as well, but this is a real wake-up call,” he said.

Mr. Linn of the NGA said states need to look at four areas ripe for comparison in the international arena: standards, assessment, accountability, and “human capital,” such as teacher quality.

But that list includes a giant red flag for some governors: the prospect of more testing. That could prove a formidable obstacle for the national policy groups to overcome at a time when states, school districts, teachers, and students are often weary from the state-assessment demands under the No Child Left Behind law, plus any additional state and local exams.


“I’m open to it, but it needs to be without additional testing time,” Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, said in an interview. “There is so much teaching to the test already, and we don’t need any more of it.”

The policy groups say they recognize such concerns, and say that’s part of the reason they must make a strong case to governors and other policymakers if they hope to persuade them to adopt international benchmarking.

Other countries, such as China, already benchmark their systems against the best international systems in the world, according to researchers. In this case, the policy groups want states to act as if they were countries and measure their best practices, standards, and student performance against those of other countries.

The idea of international benchmarking is showcased not just in the PISA but in two other tests given around the world, both directed by Boston College. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, or PIRLS, gauges literacy among 4th graders on a five-year cycle; 50 countries participated in 2006. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, tests 4th and 8th graders in those subjects every four years; 60 countries took part in 2007.

Enlisting States

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO, said the state chiefs’ group is still trying to hammer out details of how much states’ participation in international tests would cost and which states might be interested. Mr. Wilhoit said he would like to get a few states signed up by the Aug. 1 deadline for PISA so they could participate in that program’s 2009 assessment, along with the 67 countries that have already committed to it.

The PISA assessment, which is given to 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science and is administered by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is an attractive option, supporters say, because so many countries are participating and because it emphasizes the ability to apply and analyze information, rather than specific content knowledge.

PISA Basics

The National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers are exploring whether states want to participate in the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment.

• The test is given to 15-year-olds; PISA covers math, science, and reading literacy and focuses not just on content, but also on problem-solving and work- and college-ready skills.

• 67 countries are signed up to take PISA in 2009, including the United States. But no individual states participate.

• On the 2006 test, American students ranked lower than 16 other countries (out of 30) in science. In math, only four countries fared worse than the United States.

SOURCE: Education Week; Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

Mr. Linn pointed out that countries that take part in PISA represent 90 percent of the world’s economy.

Although the United States already takes part, a state-level initiative would allow states to judge their own students’ performance at an international level.

If states aren’t interested in that particular test, the chiefs’ organization is also examining how existing U.S. tests, such as the ACT college-entrance exam, could be bolstered with questions that would allow for comparisons among countries and individual states.

Mr. Wilhoit said he has been working through his organization with state schools chiefs over the past year on a model that would more closely align curriculum standards across state lines to narrow the differences that resulted from states’ crafting them in isolation from one another. But with all the emphasis on global competition, he argued, it is clear the work can’t end there.

“What if those standards are not aligned with the best-performing systems in the world?” he said.

While governors are coming at that question from an economic standpoint, Mr. Wilhoit said, state chiefs want to ensure their standards can stand up against those of other countries.

“Up until now, it’s just been a lot of conjecture,” he said.

Judith A. Rizzo, the executive director and chief executive officer of the Hunt Institute, said the chiefs’ involvement is essential.

“Implementing standards falls on the chiefs, and if they want standards that are work- and college-ready and internationally benchmarked, then that’s crucial,” said Ms. Rizzo, whose institute started looking at the issues of common standards and international benchmarking in fall 2006. “For the last few years, we’ve been biding our time on this issue. But the planets are aligning. We’re seeing pockets of action now,” she said.

Officials at Achieve, meanwhile, see international benchmarking as a natural direction for their group, which created and runs the American Diploma Project, the 32-state network that seeks to align high school standards and assessments with expectations for college and the workforce.

Achieve is digging into international standards benchmarking by studying academic expectations in other countries. Its president, Michael Cohen, has already been to China and is heading to Peru next.

“The real world that students will enter after high school is now global,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Benchmarks Momentum on Increase


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