Pressure for International Benchmarks Builds

By Sean Cavanagh & Michele McNeil — January 06, 2009 4 min read
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Three influential policy groups—keenly aware of U.S. students’ uneven scores on international tests—are pushing individual states to take lessons from high-performing countries in specific areas of school policy, such as curriculum, textbook design, and teacher recruitment and preparation.

The “common core” of internationally benchmarked standards in math and language arts urged by the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc. would contrast with what the groups see as inconsistent academic goals now used around the county.

Yet the trio’s Dec. 19 recommendations—and results released earlier last month from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study—also underscore disagreements among researchers and policymakers on the lessons the United States should draw from education policies in other countries.

TIMSS, a prominent international measure of student achievement, showed U.S. 4th and 8th graders lagging well behind students in top-scoring nations in math and science.

Those results seem to provide ammunition for advocates urging the United States to apply methods that have helped students elsewhere perform well—a theme in the report by the three groups, “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education.”

Gene Wilhoit, the executive director of the CCSSO, said in an interview that while no state is in line to implement all facets of the “benchmarking” report, many states already are tackling elements of it. And 34 states are working with Achieve—a Washington organization founded by governors and business leaders—to improve and align standards, he noted.

“The real purpose of this report was to say that it’s not enough to look internally anymore,” Mr. Wilhoit said.

Caution Urged

Mark S. Schneider, a former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, applauded the overall movement to judge U.S. schools and individual states against global measures. But Mr. Schneider, who was troubled by U.S. students’ mediocre showing on TIMSS, also urged caution among policymakers in interpreting other countries’ practices in curriculum, teaching, and other areas, in the absence of more in-depth research on those policies.

Moving Toward Common Yardsticks

A new standards-and-benchmarking report calls on states to take five “action” steps:

1.) Adopt common academic standards in math and reading, and benchmark them against those of other countries.

2.) Leverage states’ collective influence to ensure textbooks, curricula, digital materials, and assessments reflect those new standards.

3.) Revise state policies on teacher recruitment, preparation, and support to reflect those of top-performing nations.

4.) Draw upon international best practices in fine-tuning accountability systems.

5.) Ensure student results can be compared against those of other countries through new or revamped assessments.

Source: “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education”

“The fundamental standard in the United States for judging what works is very high,” said Mr. Schneider, who last fall left the NCES to become the vice president for new educational initiatives at the American Institutes for Research, a Washington-based nonprofit organization. “The fundamental standard for judging what works in other countries in not always as high.”

Education research standards in the United States “have gotten much stronger” in recent years, Mr. Schneider said, adding that he was not speaking of any particular research method. He said he simply favored using high standards in the international sphere, too.

Sir Michael Barber, the director of the global education practice for McKinsey & Co, an international consulting firm, agreed that U.S. policymakers should guard against “crudely adopting” education practices from other nations. But he also said U.S. and international policymakers have become more sophisticated in evaluating one another’s practices, partly because of test scores and analyses produced on tests such as TIMSS.

“The answer is you’ve got to learn the lessons, but you’ve got to adapt and refine them to your own systems,” Sir Michael said.

Common Yardstick

The TIMSS results, released Dec. 9, make country-by-country comparisons easier. In math, U.S. 4th graders scored 529 on the test’s 1,000-point scale, an 11-point jump above the 2003 results and well above the international average. In science, U.S. 4th graders notched a 539, statistically the same as four years ago, but also above the international norm. American 8th graders scored 8 points above the international average of 500 in math, and 20 points above the TIMSS average in science—but 47 points behind Singapore’s top mark of 567.

“For the last 10 years, we’ve seen many reports that say we need to be investing more in science education, yet very little filtered down to the classroom,” said Francis Q. Eberle, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, of Arlington, Va. “[U]ntil this country decides that science is important, results like this shouldn’t be surprising.”

Two U.S. states, Massachusetts and Minnesota, voluntarily chose to judge themselves against foreign nations on TIMSS, by having enough of their students assessed to produce their own state scores, separate from the U.S. averages. Both states came closer to the upper global echelon than did American students overall.

In 8th grade math, for instance, Massachusetts posted a score of 547 and Minnesota followed with 532, easily besting the U.S. average of 508 and coming closer to Taiwan’s top mark of 598.

B. Lindsay Lowell, who has examined U.S. students’ international test performance, said judging American and other countries’ students by their average scores can be misleading. The United States, because of its relatively large population, produces many more top-tier students, in terms of their raw numbers, than less-populated jurisdictions that achieve higher averages on tests like TIMSS, he noted.

“There’s a lot of value in the TIMSS and PISA—when they’re used judiciously,” said Mr. Lowell, the director of policy studies at the Institute for the Study of International Migration, at Georgetown University, in Washington. The strong showings of Massachusetts and Minnesota on TIMSS reveal, for policymakers interested in models for improving curriculum and instruction, that “we’ve got a lot of best practices here in the United States,” Mr. Lowell said.

Associate Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2009 edition of Education Week as Pressure for International Benchmarks Builds


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