Middle Class or Middle of the Pack? What Can We Learn When Benchmarking U.S. Schools Against the World’s Best?

In September 2011, Jay Greene’s and Josh McGee’s Global Report Card rattled America’s sleepy suburbs with its declaration that none of America’s affluent districts performed at a level that would place them among the top third of developed nations’ PISA results. This new report from America Achieves, finds essentially the same thing for middle-class schools (as gauged by PISA’s somewhat shaky indicators of socioeconomic status). U.S. students in the second-to-top SES quartile (i.e., 50th–75th percentile) are bested by students of similar demography in twenty-four countries in math and fifteen in science. (These same U.S. students are also outdone by Shanghai’s poorest quartile of pupils.) Alarming, yes, but maybe not too surprising. What’s probably more consequential about this short report—and the trove of online data that underpins it—is that it signals the beginning of an ambitious effort to bring PISA testing (and international comparing) down to the school level. Some 105 U.S. high schools took part in the pilot, supported by several major foundations, and beginning in the autumn, every American high school that is game to submit to this kind of scrutiny can join in. There is terrific potential here to awaken those sleepy suburbs to the state of learning in their own smug schools. There are, to be sure, limitations. Schools don’t necessarily have to make their results public. (A lamentable concession, in my opinion, though it may boost participation.) And because PISA tests fifteen-year-olds, they haven’t been in the high school long enough for its actual effectiveness to make a big dent in their performance. (The test results are likely reveal more about the elementary and middle schools that feed into the high school.) PISA has substantive critics, too, mostly because it isn’t designed to be aligned with curriculum; it’s more like a report on the literacy and numeracy of a large population of which the test takers (minimum of seventy-five per school in this case) are a sample. Still and all, enabling the residents—and parents and taxpayers—of a community, even a neighborhood, to see how their kids are faring in math, science, and literacy against Singapore and Germany (and many more places) can be a real eye-opener and, one hopes, a source of upset and action to rectify the situation. (Even Thomas Friedman has cocked an eye to this possibility.) And the news that results isn’t always grim. Several of the schools participating in the pilot—and willing to make their results public—did as well as the planet’s top-scoring countries! They have cause for pride—but I hope not smugness.

SOURCE: America Achieves, Middle Class or Middle of the Pack? What Can We Learn When Benchmarking U.S. Schools Against the World’s Best? (New York, NY: America Achieves, April 2013).

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