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International Opinion

Learning From a Test

By Jack D. Dale — January 07, 2014 5 min read
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We heard a lot last month about global competitiveness, and learned that the United States is not faring as well as one would hope on the Program for International Student Assessment. Though it may be tempting to just focus on the PISA rankings, it is important to look beyond rankings and learn from our global counterparts to make informed changes in policy and practice in our states and schools.

Schools are beginning to do just that by signing up for the Test for Schools, which is based on PISA and administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The test enables individual schools to understand how they stack up against other countries and to learn what they can do to further improve student outcomes.

Last year, my district—the Fairfax County schools in northern Virginia—took advantage of an opportunity coordinated by the New York City- and Washington-based America Achieves to participate in the OECD Test for Schools pilot. The results were helpful in our understanding of where Fairfax County—the 11th-largest school system in the United States, with middle-income students from around the world—stood internationally, among other benchmarks.

(After my retirement as superintendent this past summer, I became a consultant for America Achieves. I now help to guide districts and schools across the country who wish to take part in this test.)

The benefits from the pilot test were significant, so much so that all 25 Fairfax high schools have voluntarily signed up to participate in the OECD Test for Schools in 2014.

The OECD plans to make the school-based version of PISA available every year, with benchmarking based on the most recent PISA test, which is given every three years. For example, schools that take part in the OECD Test for Schools in the 2013-14 school year will see how they compare to the performance of other nations on the 2012 PISA exam.

Principals want to know how their students compare with those in top-performing countries, better understand international best practices, and improve the outcomes for their students.”

Why, at the very moment when people are throwing out phrases like “test fatigue,” would a school principal want to sign up for more testing?

While the national dialogue around education reform tends to focus on low-income inner-city and rural schools, middle-income suburban school systems like Fairfax County can face many of the same challenges: inadequate graduation rates, high remediation rates in college, and too many students who do not complete high school on time. These are challenges that we—my principals and I—and our peers across the country wanted to solve.

Each high school that takes the OECD Test for Schools receives a detailed report, explaining the findings and sharing student-survey results. Each report compares performance with that of high schools from around the globe and highlights any lessons that may be relevant to that particular school. In Fairfax County, this report was immensely powerful in helping us understand the factors that have had an impact on our schools’ performance.

To that end, the OECD notes the importance of rigorous content, a supportive learning environment, and an equitable distribution of resources for enhanced learning opportunities, and the ability to apply content and skills in new situations.

Many of the Fairfax high schools, some of which include significant low-income populations, performed above the international average and on par with some of the highest performers in the world. In both reading and math, those schools outperformed both Finland and South Korea and closely matched those high-performing nations’ science scores, even as most of the United States did not fare as well.

While we learned more about factors influencing the high-performing schools in our district, we also learned about factors that influenced lower performance in other schools. The results, and the reports from the OECD, gave us an opportunity to develop improvement strategies that my successor as Fairfax County’s schools chief is implementing this school year.

Based on clear results from the OECD Test for Schools, we saw a need to revise our instructional approaches to include more interdisciplinary learning, starting in our middle schools. It’s this kind of approach that can help to foster the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills that are essential for success in the workplace. Fairfax County is now altering professional-development activities to focus on these strategies.

The report also provides insight from students, in which we learned that students wanted and needed closer relationships with their teachers. For example, we found that high school students want a school environment that is safe and welcoming, where they feel valued for their opinions and are encouraged to express themselves. The district is now putting more professional-development emphasis on fostering positive relationships between students and teachers. It doesn’t have to take a lot of time for a teacher, but it can make a world of difference to a kid.

Unlike other tests, the OECD test takes 3½ hours. There is no preparation, there are no stakes, and there is only a random sampling by the OECD of about 85 15-year-olds—meaning that only that many students are pulled out of class. The questions assess the more complex thinking, problem-solving, and application skills the OECD deems our students need to be successful. (For U.S. high schools that do not have the funds to allocate to this initiative, America Achieves can help defray the cost.)

As districts become increasingly diverse in income and language, this tool for learning enables principals to understand where their schools are today and what they need to do tomorrow to make sure every child is ready to compete in a global economy.

As I continue to interact with schools across the United States and study education systems around the world, I see that Fairfax County is not unique. Principals want to know how their students compare with those in top-performing countries, better understand international best practices, and improve the outcomes for their students.

Today, as states and districts raise standards, develop new curricula, and implement more-thoughtful accountability systems, smart testing tools are invaluable. Nobody equates teaching with testing, and no one wants to over-test, but the knowledge gained from the OECD Test for Schools can help schools and school systems improve their curricular approaches to better prepare students for the future.

A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 2014 edition of Education Week as Learning From a Test

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