President's Corner                                       Page 46


The Problem With International Assessments


 David Pennington

I am not opposed to international assessments. We live in a globally competitive world, and it will become more so in the future. We must prepare our students to live and work in that world.

However, the assessments of academic progress we use must be valid and reliable measures of the skills students need to participate fully in a democratic and global society.

In 2015, the United States will participate in two international assessments: the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS. The PISA test is administered to a random sample of 15-year-olds around the world every three years. In 2012, 6,111 U.S. students were assessed. The TIMSS is given to 4th- and 8th-grade students every four years. In 2011, 12,509 4th graders and 10,477 8th graders were assessed.

Although the majority of school districts and students in the United States do not participate in the PISA or the TIMSS, we all are painted with the same brush when the results are released. Many of the reform initiatives implemented at the state and federal levels during the past 15 years have been driven by our performance on these two assessments, even though, to my knowledge, no state legislature, governor, congressperson or U.S. president has advocated our students’ participation.

Our test scores have been stagnant over the past decade. As much as I hope they improve in the upcoming tests, I doubt we will see much change. There are several reasons, but the most significant is that, prior to the Common Core State Standards, international standards had not been used to develop academic standards in the United States. When the PISA and TIMSS are given in 2015, the Common Core will not have been in place long enough to affect student performance.

Finally, a group of academics and school activists from eight nations are questioning the validity and reliability of the PISA. The May 5, 2014, issue of The Guardian published an open letter from this group to Andreas Schleicher, director of PISA at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In this letter, the authors ask Schleicher to forego the administration of the PISA in 2015 to give the OECD time to address their concerns and to implement their suggestions, which “illustrate how learning could be improved.”

For example, the group expresses concern that PISA has contributed to an escalation in the use of standardized testing and “dramatically increased reliance on quantitative measures,” and that “PISA takes attention away from the less measurable or immeasurable educational objectives like physical, moral, civic and artistic development, thereby dangerously narrowing our collective imagination regarding what education is and ought to be about.”

The group also suggests reforms, such as exploring “more meaningful and less easily sensationalised ways of reporting assessment outcomes” and “welcoming oversight by independent international monitoring teams.” I encourage you to read this letter, reprinted in the May 13 edition of Answer Sheet, The Washington Post’s education blog (http://bit.ly/PISA-tests).

For too long, superintendents have sat silently by as elected officials and the news media have used results from these exams to define public education in the United States. I believe the criticisms expressed in this letter are valid, and if the OECD does not address the concerns, AASA must bring them to the U. S. Department of Education and encourage Secretary Arne Duncan to suspend the participation of the United States in the PISA until the concerns have been addressed and suggested reforms implemented.

David Pennington is AASA president for 2014-15. E-mail: pennid@pcps.us. Twitter: @DavidPennid 

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