David Estrop, Superintendent of Springfield City Schools near Dayton, thinks that American students used to have a pretty good grasp on how to stay competitive with their international peers.
But now, things are changing. He uses this analogy to describe the extra challenge that students face in preparing for today’s global economy.
“Now the new expectation is that students must not only know how to drive a car,” he said. “They now have to know how to drive a semi-truck.”
And if the results of the latest PISA exam are any indication, America’s 15-year-olds aren’t quite up to the task.
The test is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among the 65 countries where the test was given this year, The U.S. ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading – with little change from previous scores.
That’s not good enough for Greg Harris, director of the educational lobbying group StudentsFirst Ohio. He thinks America should rank at least in the world’s top 10 for education.
“One thing that’s a great disparity is that we’re a top five nation in educational spending,” he said. “But hardly a top 20 nation when it comes to educational achievement.”
But Harris envisions progress on the horizon. He’s an enthusiastic backer of the new set of learning standards known as the Common Core, which Ohio and numerous other states recently adopted.
“The whole intent is we’re not going to emphasize rote learning where kids learn breaths of facts that they don’t retain,” Harris said. “The whole point of Common Core is to go more in-depth on subject matter, to slow down, to develop reasoning and critical thinking.”
Estrop agrees those skills are good indicators of success that the PISA doesn’t measure. He says there are many questions about students’ ability and character that the test just can’t answer.
“Are they persistent, do they have grit, can they hang in there in the face of difficulty,” he said, listing off unanswered questions. “So the test can measure some things, but every test has limitations and some of those limitations can only be determined based on experience.”
Piet Van Leer, of the research group Policy Matters Ohio, is also skeptical of the value of traditional standardized testing.
“I think we do rely too much on these standardized tests to tell us how we’re doing and I think that can be a trap,” he said. “It leads us to this alarmist thinking. I think we should draw the difference between urgency and alarmism.”
He sums up his skepticism with a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein.
”Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind.”