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Test scores are tip of the iceberg when comparing school systems

iceberg effect cover imageAs the parent of school-age kids, my ears prick up when I hear news about America’s schools. One story I’ve heard repeatedly since 2013 is that U.S. schools were falling behind those in Shanghai-China, which scored at the top of PISA, a large standardized test that compares nations.

When this became headline-grabbing news, many educators at the National Superintendents Roundtable raised their eyebrows. They knew the reports didn’t tell the full story of how American students were faring. PISA’s ranking of countries wasn’t truly comparable because the size, diversity and governments of participating nations varied greatly. PISA results also failed to mention that top-ranked Shanghai had screened its poor and disabled students out of testing while other countries like the U.S. did not.

The Roundtable and Horace Mann League decided to design their own study to fill in the picture. They defined 24 measures impacting student performance in the categories of equity, social stress, support for families, support for schools, student outcomes and system outcomes. Then they studied G-7 nations (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States) plus Finland and China, which are viewed as successes in education.

What they found shattered assumptions about U.S. stagnation. The U.S. remained the wealthiest country with the most-educated workforce, based on the number of years of school completed and proportion of adults with high-school diplomas and bachelor’s degrees. America also had 25 percent of the world’s top students in science at age 15, followed by Japan.

But the news wasn’t all good. U.S. data revealed terribly high levels of poverty and social stress compared to other nations. This was recently validated by the Southern Education Foundation which reports that 48 percent of students in American public schools are eligible for free/reduced lunch.

The U.S. also reported more violent deaths and teen pregnancy while investing less in services for children and families, such as preschool. American teachers work longer too: spending 40 percent more time in the classroom than their peers.

As Claudia Rowe of the Seattle Times described it, our glass is half-full, but draining fast. America’s schools are actually quite effective but we face daunting societal challenges that cripple learning.

I was proud to release this study “School Performance in Context: The Iceberg Effect” with the Roundtable and Horace Mann League in January 2015 in Washington, DC. We briefed journalists and educators the same day a Senate committee convened to revamp the No Child Left Behind law.

Lawmakers can look to this study and learn: We actually lead the world in educating all of our population. That’s something to be proud of. International tests are a useful data point, but shouldn’t be the only way we set policy or compare ourselves to other nations.

The other lesson is this: If we really want all students to excel, we must fix societal problems that make their learning difficult, especially poverty and violence.

This project was real education for me. Read a summary and full report.

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