COLUMBIA — To estimate the area of Antarctica, 15-year-old students taking the Program for International Student Assessment test are given a map and a kilometer scale. Partial credit is awarded to students who show their work; full credit, to those who get the right answer.
American students once again lag behind many of their Asian and European peers on the global PISA exam, a continuing trend that often is blamed on child poverty and a diverse population in U.S. schools. (This story is available to Missourian digital members.)
The exam, which is administered every three years, assesses the math, science and reading proficiency of about 510,000 students internationally.
But some people question what they see as a tendency to overuse standardized test scores from exams like these to analyze education systems.
“I don’t want to dismiss them, but I think we put too much weight on them,” said Stephen Whitney, an associate professor of education at MU.
According to exam results released Monday by the National Center for Education Statistics, math and science scores in the United States didn't change much between the 2009 and the 2012 exams. Scores from Asian nations, however, outpaced American results, with students in Shanghai, China, placing first out of 65 countries in all three sections.
"It's not apples to apples," Columbia Public Schools spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said.
Comparing international, national and even statewide student achievement isn't easy. Although questions in the exam are designed to cover broad content areas such as space and shape instead of curriculum-based content such as algebra and geometry, the emphasis on practical knowledge in the United States isn’t addressed by performance-based questions, Whitney said.
"We live in the ‘Show-Me’ state," Whitney said. "Knowledge is good, but useful knowledge is remembered."
The 2012 national results show that only 10 percent of American students estimating Antarctica’s area received full credit for their answer — lower than the 20 percent who got it right in the international average — but the results don’t solve education gaps in individual school districts.
"We’re assessing our students to death," Whitney said. "When you assess them, you can’t teach them."
Although this year's Missouri Assessment Program test results also showed a drop in math scores among Columbia students, Baumstark said that until all districts begin using Common Core State Standards, there won't be enough commonality among districts to properly analyze student test scores.
In an analysis of the 2012 PISA results, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development stated that successful implementation of Common Core standards could boost student performance nationwide. Practical skills emphasized in the Common Core curriculum are key to mastering math and science concepts.
The district doesn't plan to use this year's scores at the local level, though.
"We have goals and objectives based off of our individual student performances," Baumstark said. "If we get all of those pieces in line, everything will fall into place."
The district implemented the STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics — program at Benton Elementary School in 2011 to focus on hands-on technical learning. On Nov. 15, the district held a conference at Rock Bridge High School called Project Lead the Way to facilitate math and science teacher development. Plans for a math- and science-centered nature school are still being considered, Baumstark said.
"We have to set the bar high to begin with," she said. "If you can provide the support and the resources that the students need, they'll meet those expectations."
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.