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A PISA My Mind about the Effectiveness of Standardized Test Scores and STEM Connections

Few people remember the number one issue in the 2000 election was education reform. No one could fathom the impact this would have on American education for the next two decades. The election of George W. Bush was the first seismic event creating the tsunami that changed American schools, and not for the better.

While serving as the governor of Texas, Bush witnessed what he called, “The Houston Miracle.” Using standardized test scores, students in the district made measurable improvements in test scores (translation, learning). With fingers pointing at the failure of American schools, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was born. The program called for restoring local control of schools, setting high standards, giving schools flexibility to meet them, measuring progress, and insisting on results. The last two items have vexed the education landscape for years. The passage of the NCLB Act in 2002 ensured high stakes testing as the measurable foundation of performance in all aspects of education.

While NCLB was making its way through Congress, the National Science Foundation was answering concerns about the efficacy of American education. In 2001, the designers announced the creation of SMET curriculum. The letters would be rearranged to STEM, but the meaning of them would not change: science, technology, engineering, and math. Over the next two decades, most STEM grants explicitly excluded teachers from other disciplines. The future was based on the rising technology and information revolution spawned by the internet. The net was going to be the game-changer for the economy of the world and everything associated with it. The future was digital, and STEM was going to illuminate the path by developing 21st Century learners. STEM proponents claimed resilience, autonomy, teamwork, problem-solving, and measurability would prepare learners for the new economy where better than 60% of available jobs were yet to be created. STEM and NCLB worked together hand-in-glove with the rising call for measurable results and rigor in the curriculum.

The tsunami was building.

In 2003, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) would send this wave crashing down on the American school system. PISA tested high school-aged students across the globe based on the premise, “economic growth and competitiveness as the sole purpose of education.” They only tested learners for their skills in reading, math, and science. In 2003 PISA published its first report ranking global student achievement in these disciplines; the results burst the American education bubble. The top-scoring countries of the world were Finland, Korea, Canada, Japan, and Hong Kong, with the United States being ranked at 18th in reading, 22nd in science, and 28th in math.

The evidence proved America was a global education failure. The future looked bleak, and a poor education system was to blame. Fingers were pointed directly at teachers for being incompetent, and teacher unions were demonized for supporting incompetent educators. Public education was failing America, and now we had the numbers to prove it. The rankings were proof, and the national reaction raged against the education system.

NCLB legislation demanded schools obtain Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) with the goal of 100% measurable success. It was unattainable. Despite this impossible objective, administrators and teachers could read the cursive on the wall; their future employment was dependent upon learners’ success on a high-stakes assessment. These provided zero indicators about a student’s future. According to Yong Zhao, a Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, “…there is no evidence to justify, let alone prove, the claim that PISA indeed measures skills that are essential for life in modern economies.”

Almost immediately, an entire industry was built around the TEST.

Companies were formed to “assist” failing schools in test preparation. If one types “U.S. test preparation companies” into a Google search, 123,000,000 results will pop up, with 110,000 of those results being for the Smarter Balance assessment.

By 2009 the National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) had created the Common Core Standards (CCSS). American Collegiate Testing (ACT) and the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), as well as the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) created by the Northwest Evaluation Association, became commonplace tools of learner progress. Scripted lesson plans sold at inflated prices, and struggling school districts purchased lesson packages that guaranteed positive results. The tsunami inundated the system, and the results were depressing.

  • Disrespect for the public education system and teachers became the norm.
  • Test anxiety reached epidemic proportions for all concerned.
  • Charter schools became the panacea, with public funds channeled to them with mixed results.
  • Scripted lessons and a “one size fits all” mentality removed the creative process, shaking teacher confidence to the core.
  • Boomer retirements and disgruntled professionals left the profession, decimating the ranks.
  • Teacher shortages ravaged the country with openings being filled by long-term subs of questionable quality.

The latest set of 2018 PISA scores has the United States 13th in reading, 18th in science and 37th in math. Asian countries like Singapore are still in the top three in all categories. Although this is an improvement from the 2015 rankings of 24th in reading, 25th in science, and 40th in math, it is not a significant improvement.

It is time to get real. Standardized tests are nothing more than a blurry snapshot of education. To continue to treat them as anything more is to continue this absurd fascination with numbers. Deep learning and creative efforts are hard to measure, but they are what will prevent U.S. schools from becoming awash with incompetence and temporary solutions to permanent problems. The tsunami still has the American system of education drowning in indecision, waste, and controversy.


John Tierney spent 33 years in the classroom and was named the 2016 Nevada State Teacher of the Year. Since retiring from teaching, he has become part of the Superintendent’s Teacher Advisory Cabinet, President of Nevada State Teachers of the Year, and the Chair of the Institutional Advisory Council for Great Basin College. John still plays an active role in education as a presenter and teacher advocate and is a national facilitator for PBS TeacherLine.


 





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