Back to Skills

Exam Gives Glimpse of How Schools Stack Up Globally

Back to Skills

The many complaints about the large quantity of standardized assessments American students take may make giving another test a hard sell. But some U.S. high schools have recently added a voluntary exam that puts their student achievement in reading, math and science into an international context.

That assessment, the OECD Test for Schools, aims to measure students’ critical-thinking and problem-solving skills in those subjects. It’s based on the high-profile PISA exam (short for the Program for International Student Assessment) for 15-year-olds, which dozens of nations take every three years to see how they compare globally. At a recent Education Writers Association seminar in Washington, D.C., educators shared their experiences with the exam, and why they find it useful.

“The truth of the matter is that in this global economy we talk about so much and so often, my students are competing with everyone,” said Tiffany Huitt, the principal of a 415-student Dallas magnet school that has administered the exam multiple times. “And so it was important to me to sort of find some sort of a tool where I could say, ‘I think these are the skill sets they’re getting that make them competitive.’”

Approximately 450 U.S. high schools have given the exam at least once since it was piloted in 2012. It’s also being used by schools in the United Kingdom and Spain, with plans to expand to other countries. The assessment was developed by the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which developed and oversees PISA. (You can try sample questions in reading, math, and science here.)

The OECD Test for Schools provides a benchmark for individual schools to see how they compare globally. After all, it is in that global arena that American graduates will have to compete.

In addition to testing students’ knowledge and skills, the OECD Test for Schools also includes a survey of students’ attitudes toward education and the learning environment.

Changing Practice

Huitt said she was particularly surprised to discover a number of her students failed to see the relevancy of mathematics, as they reported in the survey that math had nothing to do with their future jobs. After all, she runs the School of Science and Engineering (housed in the Yvonne A. Ewell Townview Magnet Center).

”Our practice has completely changed as a result of that,” she said.

The detailed reports provided to her school based on the OECD Test for Schools have sparked other changes as well, she said, including finding money to pay for college-entrance and Advanced Placement exams in the school, where about two-thirds of the students are eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.

The OECD test results provide a “leverage point for conversation,” Huitt said, and resources such as case studies of what works elsewhere, enabling educators to say, “Here’s my school’s profile, and here’s why we’re changing this, totally revamping our math practice.”

‘Nuance and Complexity’

Daniel Gohl, who earlier this year became the chief academic officer for Broward County Public Schools in Florida, argued that the OECD Test for Schools provides far more nuanced information than educators receive from such things as school grades issued by states.

“What we need is not judgment, but rather a tool that provides a mirror of some of the nuance and complexity that is lived by our teachers and students in our schools,” he said during the panel discussion.

He said the OECD test fits the bill and looks for the “new currency” of students being able to apply skills quickly and appropriately. Several Broward County high schools piloted a new, online version of the exam last fall. And about a dozen schools in the system will take that assessment this spring, as the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported last week. Mr. Gohl oversaw use of the assessment in 2015 by Houston public high schools, where he was the chief academic officer prior to moving to Florida.

The OECD assessment and survey is aimed at providing information to inform efforts to not only help low-achieving students improve, but also high-achieving ones.

“We were significantly better, I think, than a lot of … American schools or our peers,” said Huitt. “However, when we just kind of looked at our school, where we expected students to be, [to] have more self-sufficiency or be more motivated, we were surprised that they were not.”

These findings helped the school to shift its focus and the questions asked of students, she explained.

“I think more than anything, this tool gave us an opportunity to give our students a voice,” she said.

Making the Data Public

Although it’s up to individual schools or districts to decide whether the OECD Test for Schools reports are made public, Huitt said her school’s results have been shared with the community. The most recent report, which is more than 160 pages long, is available online. Gohl said the reports also are made public by the Houston district.

Here are some basics about the OECD Test for Schools:

  • While based on PISA frameworks, it is not the same test.
  • Not all students are tested; only a randomly selected group of at least 85 students in a given school takes the test.
  • Counting time for instruction and breaks, students spend three to three- and-a- half hours answering questions in math, reading and science as well as completing a survey about themselves, their homes and their school.
  • The cost of the test, first piloted in 2012, is $11,000 per school, but a new online version will bring the cost down to $5,000 per school.

Jon Schnur, the executive chairman and co-founder of America Achieves, which leads U.S. participation in the OECD Test for Schools and has established a Global Learning Network for participating schools, called the assessment “an empowering tool, not an accountability tool.”

Schnur said the U.S. has made some progress in educational achievement over the last decade, but he argues that the nation must do far better to meet the needs of the job market.

“The world has changed, the economy has changed dramatically, technology, globalization, etc., and the bar for new jobs is totally different than it was,” he said.