From Forum for Education and Democracy:
My comments are based on studies of U.S. education and of the education systems of other countries that are outperforming the U.S. by larger and larger margins every year. For example, in the most recent PISA assessments, the U.S. ranked 19th out of 40 countries in reading, 20th in science, and 28th in math (on a par with Latvia), outscored by nations like Finland, Sweden, Canada, Hong Kong, South Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, and Singapore (which did not participate in PISA but scored at the top of the TIMSS rankings) that are investing intensively in the kinds of curriculum and assessments and the kinds of teaching force improvements that we desperately need and that this re-authorization bill is seeking to introduce.
2003 PISA RESULTS
U.S. ranks # 19 / 40
U.S. ranks #20 / 40
U.S. ranks #28 / 40 It is worth noting that PISA assessments focus explicitly on 21st century skills, going beyond the question posed by most U.S. standardized tests, “Did students learn what we taught them?” to ask, “What can students do with what they have learned?” PISA defines literacy in mathematics, science, and reading as students’ abilities to apply what they know to new problems and situations. This is the kind of higher-order learning that is increasingly emphasized in other nations’ assessment systems, but often discouraged by the multiple-choice tests most states have adopted under the first authorization of No Child Left Behind. Underneath the United States’ poor standing is an outcome of both enormous inequality in school inputs and outcomes and a lack of sufficient focus for all students on higher-order thinking and problem-solving, the areas where all groups in the U.S. do least well on international tests.
In addition to declines in performance on international assessments, the U.S. has slipped in relation to other countries in terms of graduation rates and college-going. Most European and Asian countries that once educated fewer of their citizens now routinely graduate virtually all of their students. Meanwhile, the U.S. has not improved graduation rates for a quarter century, and graduation rates are now going down as requirements for an educated workforce are going steeply up. According to an ETS study, only about 69% of high school students graduated with a standard diploma in 2000, down from 77% in 1969. Of the 60% of graduates who go onto college, only about half graduate from college with a degree. In the end, less than 30% of an age cohort in the U.S. gains a college degree. For students of color, the pipeline leaks more profusely at every juncture. Only about 17% of African American young people between the ages of 25 and 29 – and only 11% of Hispanic youth -- had earned a college degree in 2005, as compared to 34 % of white youth in the same age bracket.
And whereas the U.S. was an unchallenged 1st in the world in higher education participation for many decades, it has slipped to 13th and college participation for our young people is declining. Just over one-third of U.S. young adults are participating in higher education, most in community colleges. Meanwhile, the countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which are mostly European, now average nearly 50% participation in higher education, and most of these students are in programs leading to a bachelors degree. Similarly in Southeast Asia, enormous investments in both K-12 and higher education have steeply raised graduation rates from high school as well as college-going rates.
The implications of these trends are important for national economies. A recent OECD report found that for every year that the average schooling level of the population is raised, there is a corresponding increase of 3.7% in long-term economic growth, a statistic worth particular note while the U.S. is going backwards in educating its citizens, and most of the rest of the world is moving forward.
What are High-Achieving Nations Doing?
Funding. Most high-achieving countries not only provide high-quality universal preschool and health care for children, they also fund their schools centrally and equally, with additional funds to the neediest schools. By contrast, in the U.S., the wealthiest school districts spend nearly ten times more than the poorest, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states. These disparities reinforce the wide inequalities in income among families, with the most resources being spent on children from the wealthiest communities and the fewest on the children of the poor, especially in high-minority communities.
Teaching. Furthermore, high-achieving nations intensively support a better-prepared teaching force – funding competitive salaries and high-quality teacher education, mentoring, and ongoing professional development for all teachers, at government expense. Countries which rarely experience teacher shortages (such as Finland, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore) have made substantial investments in teacher training and equitable teacher distribution in the last two decades. These include:
1 High-quality pre-service teacher education, completely free of charge to all candidates, including a year of practice teaching in a clinical school connected to the university,
2 Mentoring for all beginners in their first year of teaching from expert teachers, coupled with other supports like a reduced teaching load and shared planning,
3 Salaries which are competitive with other professions, such as engineering and are equitable across schools (often with additional stipends for hard-to-staff locations),
4 Ongoing professional learning embedded in 10 or more hours a week of planning and professional development time.
Leaders in Finland attribute the country’s dramatic climb from the bottom of the international rankings to the very top to intensive investments in teacher education. Over ten years the country overhauled preparation to focus more on teaching for higher-order skills and teaching diverse learners – including a strong emphasis on those with special needs – and created a funding stream to provide a 3-year graduate level preparation program to all teacher candidates free of charge and with a living stipend, a full year of training in a professional development school site – rather like the residency promoted in this draft bill, intensive mentoring once in the classroom, and more than ten hours a week of professional learning time in school, where teachers collaborate on lesson planning and on the development and scoring of local performance assessments that are the backbone of the country’s assessment system.
In high-achieving Singapore, which I recently visited as part of a review team for the Institute of Education, students from the top 1/3 of the high school class are recruited into a 4-year teacher education program (or, if they enter later, a one-year graduate program) and immediately put on the Ministry’s payroll as employees. They are paid a stipend while they are in training (which is free for them) and are paid at a rate that is higher than beginning doctors when they enter the profession. There they receive systematic mentoring from expert teachers once they begin teaching. Like all other teachers in Singapore, the government pays for 100 hours of professional development annually in addition to the 20 hours a week they have to work with other teachers and visit each others’ classrooms to study teaching. As they progress through the career, there are 3 separate career ladders they can pursue, with support from the government for further training: developing the skills and taking on the responsibilities of curriculum specialists, teaching / mentoring specialists, or prospective principals.
Curriculum and Assessment. Finally, these high-achieving nations focus their curriculum on critical thinking and problem solving, using examinations that require students to conduct research and scientific investigations, solve complex real-world problems in mathematics, and defend their ideas orally and in writing. In most cases, their assessment systems combine centralized (state or national) assessments that use mostly open-ended and essay questions and local assessments given by teachers, which are factored into the final examination scores. These local assessments – which include research papers, applied science experiments, presentations of various kinds, and projects and products that students construct -- are mapped to the syllabus and the standards for the subject and are selected because they represent critical skills, topics, and concepts. They are often suggested and outlined in the curriculum, but they are generally designed, administered, and scored locally.
An example of such assessments can be found in Appendix A, which shows science assessments from high-achieving Victoria, Australia and Hong Kong – which use very similar assessment systems -- in comparison to traditional multiple choice or short answer items from the United States. Whereas students in most parts of the U.S. are typically asked simply to memorize facts which they need to recognize in a list answers, or give short answers which are also just one-sentence accounts of memorized facts, students in Australia and Hong Kong (as well as other high-achieving nations) are asked to apply their knowledge in the ways that scientists do.
The item from the Victoria, Australia biology test, for example, describes a particular virus to students, asks them to design a drug to kill the virus and explain how the drug operates (complete with diagrams), and then to design an experiment to test the drug. This state test in Victoria comprises no more than 50% of the total examination score. The remaining components of the examination score come from required assignments and assessments students undertake throughout the year – lab experiments and investigations as well as research papers and presentations – which are designed in response to the syllabus. These ensure that they are getting the kind of learning opportunities which prepare them for the assessments they will later take, that they are getting feedback they need to improve, and that they will be prepared to succeed not only on these very challenging tests but in college and in life, where they will have to apply knowledge in these ways.
Locallymanaged performance assessments that get students to apply their knowledge to real-world problems are critically to important to the teaching and learning process. They allow the testing of more complex skills that cannot be measured in a two-hour test on a single day. They shape the curriculum in ways that ensure stronger learning opportunities. They give teachers timely, formative information they need to help students improve -- something that standardized examinations with long lapses between administration and results cannot do. And they help teachers become more knowledgeable about the standards and how to teach to them, as well as about their own students and how they learn. The process of using these assessments improves their teaching and their students’ learning. The processes of collective scoring and moderation that many nations or states use to ensure reliability in scoring also prove educative for teachers, who learn to calibrate their sense of the standards to common benchmarks.
The power of such assessments for teaching and learning is suggested by the fact that ambitious nations are consciously increasing the use of school-based performance assessments in their systems. Hong Kong, Singapore, and several Australian states have intensive efforts underway to expand these assessments. England, Canada, Sweden, and the Netherlands have already done so. Locally managed performance assessments comprise the entire assessment system in top-ranked Finland and in Queensland and ACT, Australia – the highest-achieving states in that high-achieving nation.
These assessments are not used to rank or punish schools, or to deny promotion or diplomas to students. (In fact, several countries have explicit proscriptions against such practices). They are used to evaluate curriculum and guide investments in professional learning -- in short, to help schools improve. By asking students to show what they know through real-world applications of knowledge, these other nations’ assessment systems encourage serious intellectual activities that are currently being discouraged in U.S. schools by the tests many states have adopted under NCLB.
How NCLB can Help the United States Become Educationally Competitive
Multiple Measures and Performance Assessments. The proposals in the re-authorization draft to permit states to use a broader set of assessments and to encourage the development and use of performance assessments are critical to creating a globally competitive curriculum in U.S. schools. We need to encourage our states to evaluate the higher-order thinking and performance skills that leading nations emphasize in their systems, and we need to create incentives that value keeping students in school through graduation as much as producing apparently high average scores at the school level.
Many states developed systems that include state and locally-administered performance assessments as part of their efforts to develop standards under Goals 2000 in the 1990s. (These states included Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, Rhode Island, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming, among others.) Not coincidentally, these include most of the highest-achieving states in the U.S. on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Indeed, the National Science Foundation provided millions of dollars for states to develop such hands-on science and math assessments as part of its Systemic Science Initiative in the 1990s, and prototypes exist all over the country. One such measure -- a science investigation requiring students to design, conduct, analyze, and write up results for an experiment -- currently used as a state science assessment in Connecticut (a top-ranked state in both science and writing) is included with the assessment examples in Appendix A.
Researchers learned that such assessments can be managed productively and reliably scored with appropriate training and professional development for teachers, along with moderation and auditing systems, and that teaching and student achievement improve when such assessments are used.
However, the initial years of NCLB have discouraged the use and further development of these assessments, and have narrowed the curriculum both in terms of the subjects and kinds of skills taught. NCLB’s rapidly implemented requirement for every-child every-year testing created large costs and administrative challenges that have caused some states to abandon their performance assessments for machine-scored, multiple choice tests that are less expensive to score and more easily satisfy the law. In addition, the Department of Education has discouraged states from using such assessments. When Connecticut sued the federal government for the funds needed to maintain its sophisticated performance assessments on an every-child every-year basis, the Department suggested the state drop these tasks – which resemble those used in high-scoring nations around the world -- for multiple choice tests. Thus the administration of the law is driving the U.S. curriculum in the opposite direction from what a 21st century economy requires.
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