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Much ado about PISA

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The latest test results of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), are out and for the alarmists in America, the sky continues its free fall. They know the reasons: Indifferent parents, incompetent teachers and irresponsible students collude within a toxic culture that values entertainment over education by several orders of magnitude. Is it any wonder, they ask, that our teens fare so poorly compared to their international peers in math, science and reading? End of discussion.

It is time to put an end to the alarmist, some would say nihilistic, reactions to PISA tests, or for that matter, to any standardized tests.

But first, the facts.

PISA tests are given every 3 years. The latest results reflect the test given in 2012 to 65 countries - 34 OECD countries and 31 partner countries. A total of 510,000 students, mostly 15-year-olds, participated. American teens ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading among 34 developed countries. Specifically, out of a possible 600 points, American student scored 481 in math, 497 in science and 498 in reading.

In all categories, students from the Chinese region of Shanghai topped the list, followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, South Korea, Macau, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

There is no denying that American students have never done well compared to their top-performing peers in PISA tests. But how strongly does the PISA results correlate with a nation’s future, with its creativity and innovation?

Statistically it is possible to show some type of correlation between any two sets of numerical data. The correlation may be weak, medium or strong. It may also be bogus or genuine.

In the case of standardized tests, particularly at the international level, the correlation surely reveals something but not to the extent that our grim pseudo-analyst-pundits claim. PISA tests are not all multiple-choice, fact-driven exams. They include questions that require free-form answers and the ability to apply word problems to real-world situations. From that perspective, the poor showing of our teens is troubling. They have fallen short and will continue to fall short academically unless they take ownership of their learning. However, help is on the way in the form of student-centered Common Core Curriculum (CCC), which all the states, except Virginia, Minnesota, Nebraska, Texas and Alaska, have adopted. The curriculum focuses on critical thinking, analytical, reasoning and problem-solving skills and starts from the 2014-2015 academic year.

We will, of course, have to wait for several years before the results of CCC are in but there is no doubt that it represents a step in the right direction for America’s K-12, and by extension, community college, students.

But we must be wary of seeing too much in the results of standardized tests even after students have had several years of experience with CCC. We have to be cautious in drawing sweeping lessons from any test. Creativity and innovation occur at the confluence of myriad factors that include culture, freedom, ability to challenge authority, and dissatisfaction with the status quo. These cannot be reduced to numbers from a test.

Besides, top-performing Asian countries are known for teaching to the test and for their extensive programs of after-school tutoring. High scores in a test like PISA may simply mean that students have mastered the art (or science) of acing the test, nothing more and nothing less. Their goal is not to become independent thinkers but excellent test takers. A Hong-Kong based educator puts it bluntly: “This after-school education is my world. I am one of the thousands of tutors helping Hong Kong students achieve high test scores. To me, the recent test results were no surprise: Of course East Asian kids test well. They are tested every day, even when they are sick. Our children sit for lengthy, rigorous and confusing examinations, starting at age 6. Weekends, summers and holiday breaks are golden opportunities to catch up on some R&R — review and revision, that is. But the thing about testing is that it creates excellent followers, not leaders. Doing well on tests requires constant test prep. Granted, when it comes to buckling down and cramming for hours on end, Asians kids will beat their U.S. counterparts to a pulp. But give them a task that is not testable or not directly related to school, ask them to do something not for their college application but for themselves, and they’ll draw a blank.”

Americana kids reading this cannot afford to feel smug. (We cannot also not ignore the fact that many of them are taught to the test as well.) They need to recognize that a creative and fulfilling life demands the kind of rigor and aptitude they have generally failed to show so far.

At the same time, Americans must also realize that teachers are at the heart of our K-12 system. Unless teachers are accorded the respect they deserve in our society (as they are in Finland, Singapore and other top-performing nations), with salaries consistent with their calling (meaning their salaries be on a par with what lawyers, doctors, engineers and entertainers earn), we will only be paying lip service to improving the dismal showings of our teens while the alarmists continue their perennial lament of clouds darkening the future of our nation.

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