Assessment Opinion

If At First You Don’t Succeed...

By Diane Ravitch — February 05, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I have read the reports of the international assessments over the years and think it would be foolhardy to dismiss them out of hand. The professionals who create them and administer them have no axe to grind; they don’t get bonuses if the scores go up or down. They are scrupulous about reporting the participation rates, the exclusion rates, the age of the students who took the tests, and all other relevant factors. Unlike district superintendents and state superintendents, they have no reason to boast about rising scores or seek better results.

The analysis of the international tests that I have found especially interesting is one published in 2005 by the American Institutes of Research called Reassessing U.S. International Mathematics Performance. This study examined the dozen nations that participated in both TIMSS and PISA. It exploded a common myth that American students do well in fourth grade, are about average compared to other nations by eighth grade, and perform dismally in senior year in high school. No, says the study, this is not an accurate characterization. In fact, when looking only at the nations that have consistently taken part in international testing, students in the U.S. are mediocre at every grade level, not ranking better than eighth or ninth out of the dozen nations.

One of the characteristics of most of the high-scoring nations was a national curriculum in mathematics. That way, teachers did not have to engage in guesswork about what students needed to learn.

While on the subject of math, there is an interesting insight about the New York State Regents that I want to share with you. A former mathematics teacher, Steve Koss, regularly writes for the New York City parent blog, and he recently pointed out that the passing score on the Regents exam in mathematics is a farce. A student need answer only 31 percent of the questions on the exam correctly in order to get a passing grade of 65. Or, as he puts it, “a paltry 31 percent is now the new 65 percent.” The public presumes (I certainly did), that a grade of 65 on an exam means that a student answered 65 percent of the questions correctly. This is not, according to Koss, the case. So much for high standards. Education Week, by the way, ranked New York as the #1 state in the nation recently in education. I wonder if those who created the rankings looked at the examination system.


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