Executive Perspective                                 Page 42

Caring More About the Home Front


 Daniel Domenech

In their latest book, 50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass give the honor of being the first myth to be debunked to how international tests show that the United States has a second-rate education system.

Berliner and Glass claim the United States has never done well on international tests, so the claim is nothing new. They mention how back in 1970, the U.S. scored well behind the leading nation, Italy. Berliner and Glass go on to say, “Oh, and how did the United States and Italy do in terms of economic growth after we found out in the 1960s we were far from being numero uno?”

Their point is that if our concern over performance on international tests has to do with global dominance, our past performance does not seem to correlate with the reality that we are the most powerful nation in the world. They also point out that the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, undoubtedly the better known of the international tests, is not based on the curricula we teach but rather is “designed to evaluate how well students can apply their knowledge to hypothetical standards that the test makers deem necessary for full participation in society,” whatever that means.

Poverty Dictates

The best argument they make, from my perspective, is the correlation with poverty. It turns out that the United States has the highest childhood poverty rate of all of the industrialized nations taking the PISA assessment. One out of every four children in America lives in poverty. In one of the top-rated countries, Finland, the childhood poverty rate is lower than 5 percent. If we were to compare all of the participating nations using a poverty rate of 10 percent or less, the United States would rank No. 1.

The effects of poverty on student achievement are well-documented in our own country. The closest assessment we have to a national test is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. When NAEP scores are correlated with the percentage of students on free and reduced-priced lunch, we see almost a perfect negative correlation. The higher the percentage of poverty, the lower the NAEP score.

The same effect is reflected on international test performance. Our achievement gap is truly the result of an economic gap that has grown wider since the economic recession.

Another factor relating to our performance on international tests needs to be considered. Many nations with whom we compete have national standards and a national curriculum. That is far from the case here in the United States, where we have as many standards and curricula as we have states. Several years ago, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers attempted to correct that by developing the Common Core State Standards.

The discrepancy between state performance on state-developed assessments and the NAEP was extremely alarming. Clearly, states had learned to game the NCLB’s adequate yearly progress requirements by lowering the cut scores on the state tests to reduce the number of schools failing to make AYP.

The Common Core standards were supposed to, at the very least, reduce the number of standards and assessments to a more manageable level with the hope some day we might arrive at a national set of standards and assessments agreed to by the states, not the federal government. That goal is now in danger, as a number of states have pulled out of the CCSS and others are considering the move. That is unfortunate.

GOP Opposition

Our schools need higher standards than we currently have, and most superintendents and educators support that. A survey conducted by AASA last spring also points to a concern that federal interference may have played a role in creating the political storm that may lead to the demise of the Common Core. The funding of the two assessment consortiums, the strong suggestion that Race to the Top applicants adopt the CCSS, that the assessment results be used in teacher and principal evaluations, as well as the determination of AYP all have contributed to Republican opposition to so-called “Obamacore.”

Superintendents indicate they will continue to work with the higher standards regardless of what they are called. Too much time has been spent on training teachers, acquiring the appropriate curriculum and instructional materials, and convincing the school community this is the right thing to do.

We need to take care of our problems at home and worry less about meaningless international standings.

Daniel Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org. Twitter: @AASADan


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