Why is it that the perception of science education in the U.S. (and other countries as well) is driven by rankings of students on international test score comparisons? The perception is that U.S. students are not competitive in the global market place because of their position in the rankings of the scores obtained on tests such as PISA and TIMSS.
Yet, as Iris C. Rotberg has shown in her analysis of educational reforms on a global scale, most of the conclusions that we make based on international studies are not supported either by the findings or by research in general.
Student Test Score Rankings & Global Competitiveness
For example, the most visible conclusion that is made from the international studies is that “test-score rankings are linked to a country’s economic competitiveness.” Rotberg uses data from the World Economic Forum’s 2010 – 2011 global-competitiveness report to show that student test score rankings do not correlate with a nation’s economic competitiveness. For example on the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) U.S. students do not rank in the top 10 member countries in any of these areas: Maths, Sciences, and Reading. The United States ranked 30 in maths, 23 in sciences, and 17 in reading.
Yet, in 2011, the United States was in 4th place in the rankings of 139 countries global competitiveness (dropping from the number 2 position from the last year). The comparisons across countries are made using 12 pillars of competitiveness, including basic requirements (institutions, infrastructure, etc.), efficiency enhancers (higher education, good market, labor market, financial market, etc.) and innovation and sophistication factors (business sophistication, innovation).
What is making the United States less competitive, according to the report? Could it be the way math or science is taught in our schools? Could it be that are teachers are not competent to teach math or science?
The major factors identified in World Economic Forum analysis identifies as contributing to making the U.S. less competitive (i.e., dropping from 2nd to 4th) are really not surprising. The evaluation of institutions, the fact that the public does not trust politicians, and that the business community is concerned about government interference with business are three for starters.
Here are some more: the business community thinks the government spends its money too freely. There is also increasing concern about the nature of the auditing of private companies, as well as the downward trend of business ethics. And one of the major factors causing the United States to become less competitive is the “burgeoning levels of public indebtedness. The debt ceiling fiasco that we all witnessed in Washington led the United States losing its prized AAA credit rating from S&P.
Iris Rotberg concludes that continuing to use student test scores is not a valid argument to understand a nation’s competitiveness.
A nation’s competitiveness is too complicated, and is impacted by other variables as identified above, and put rather nicely by Rotberg as follows:
Other variables, such as outsourcing to gain access to lower-wage employees, the climate and incentives for innovation, tax rates, health-care and retirement costs, the extent of government subsidies or partnerships, protectionism, intellectual-property enforcement, natural resources, and exchange rates overwhelm mathematics and science scores in predicting economic competitiveness.
Taking the Lead
One of the outcomes of reading the international test reports is that corporate leaders, politicians, and influential policy makers continue the cry that U.S. education is lacking in math and science, and that our place in the world of economic prosperity is being challenged. There is no evidence to support this other to say that the forces identified above are contributing to challenge America’s prosperity.
For example, for the past year or so, the Carnegie Foundation funded and will continue to fund a process that will lead to a new generation of science standards. In the Summer of 2011, the National Research Council announced the publication of a Framework for K-12 Science Education which will be used by Achieve, Inc., to write a new set of science standards, K-12 to be published in 2012 or 2013. Achieve, which also wrote the Common Core Standards in math and reading/language arts, has begun the process which involves cooperation with the AAAS, and NSTA. In one of their documents, which are online at their site, they had this to say about the relationship between the new standards, and the United States position in the world:
Conditions are right for the United States to take the lead internationally in forging a new conceptual framework for science, and next generation science standards. The NRC framework and aligned science standards will create a fresh vision for science education and new directions for teaching, learning, and assessment that could contribute significantly to improving student understanding and achievement. Seizing the opportunity that this moment presents will bring us a step closer to moving the United States into the vanguard of international science education reform.
You might wonder what is the problem with a new conceptual framework, a fresh vision for science education. Actually, this process might be valuable if it were tied directly to curriculum development and teacher education. However, the problem is that these new standards will be part of a continuing effort to reform science education along the lines of NCLB Act in which achievement test scores are used as the marker for measuring what students have learned in schools, and how well teachers and schools are performing. The standardization of the science curriculum seems to me to be the antithesis of innovation, which is one of the 12 pillars used to assess the competitiveness of a nation’s economic system.
Science teaching has much to offer society, especially science teachers that embrace innovation, creativity, and inquiry as core to their teaching approaches with their students.
Continuing to used data in meaningless and unsupportable ways to achieve ends of a few corporate leaders, and policy makers is not in the best interest of American science education.
The Lens of Poverty
A report this week indicated that the poverty rates in the U.S. had increased and that one out of six Americans lives in poverty (46.2 million people). The poverty rates among African-Americans and Hispanics, 27.4 and 26.6, are more than double that of whites, which is 9.9 percent.
According to separate research analyses by Rotberg, and Tirozzi, the examination of international (or national) test results through the lens of poverty uncovers quite a different picture. Each researcher has reported that poverty and concentrations of poverty have adverse effects in schools on student performance (in all countries).
For example on PISA test results socioeconomic status accounts for more than 80 of the difference in performance. Tirozzi, using free or reduced lunch data as a marker of poverty, found that the U.S. has the largest number of students living in poverty (21.7), and that the only other nations (taking part in PISA) that had poverty levels close to the United States were the U.K, and New Zealand. U.S. schools with less than 10% poverty rank one in the world, those with 10 – 25% poverty rank third, behind Korea and Finland, and U.S. schools with 25 – 50% poverty are tenth in the world.
The recent cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools an unfortunate example of what happens when education becomes deterministic based on a set of policies that drive schools and systems to “create a culture of fear” to make sure that schools meet accountability standards that are not based on supporting documentation or research.
There are many misconceptions surrounding the use of achievement test results in making claims about the quality of science education.
International Test Scores, Irrelevant Policies by Iris C. Rotberg, Education Week, September 13, 2011
Balancing Change and Tradition in Global Education Reform by Iris C. Rotberg, et.al.
The Competitiveness Report 2010-2011, World Economic Forum
The Economics Behind International Education Rankings, Cynthia McCabe
Tags: International Test Score, PISA, Science Standards, science standards, science teaching, TIMSS