Archives for category: International

Finnish students almost never take a standardized test. They take tests written by their teachers.

There is one test, however, that students take at the end of high school. It is the same for all students but the quality of the questions is far more complex and interesting than the questions found on the SAT or the ACT.

Here Pasi Sahlberg explains the kinds of questions that Finnish students are expected to answer.

The structure of the exams sounds amazingly like the old essay-style “College Board examinations” that were offered from 1901-1941, when they were replaced by the SAT for the sake of efficiency and speed (the decision to make the switch was made on Pearl Harbor Day). The Finnish exams are written and scored by teachers and scholars, not computers.

There are no bias and sensitivity guidelines to screen out controversial topics. Indeed, the tests include controversial topics.

Here is a typical question:

“Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first happen in countries like Great Britain. What made Marx and Engels claim that and why did a socialist revolution happen in Russia?”

Students don’t pick a box. It is not a multiple-choice question. Students have to know what they are writing about. No guessing. No SAT, no ACT, no Pearson. .

I earlier posted a five-minute video presentation in New Zealand by Dr. David Hursh.

Here is the full presentation.

In the ongoing debate between Tom Loveless of Brookings and Andreas Schleicher of the OECD, score one for Loveless.

Loveless has steadfastly maintained that the astonishing scores from Shanghai are almost meaningless because of the missing students.

At a conference in Great Britain, Schleicher admitted that about a quarter of the children in Shanghai were not sampled for the PISA exam.  Yet he continued to maintain that the children of menial workers in Shanghai know more than the children of professionals in other countries.

Now if only he could produce a scintilla of evidence that the PISA rankings foretell the economic future of any country tested.

Maybe he might explain how it is that the U.S. is the most powerful economy in the world despite the fact that its students have persistently scored about average in the international league tables or even in the bottom quarter over the past 50 years.

This came as a comment:


Why do Obama and Duncan insist on naming South Korea as a model? Other than testing results, there is little that is admirable about the South Korean education system and South Koreans would be the first to admit it (I am South Korean, although I was educated in the US because my parents immigrated to — you guessed it — spare my siblings and me from the South Korean education system). Public schooling is basically meaningless, kids start going to cram schools that run until 10pm or later while in middle school. Regular school is just for sleeping and socializing. Parents have only one kid (Korea has the lowest birthrate of any OECD country) because educating them is such an insane cash drain. Even so Korea spends much more of its GDP % on education than the US has or ever would. Korean schools can be better funded, standardized and operated because the central government provides most of the funding and sets the curriculum. Socially, Korea is a very horizontally integrated country (at least superficially) outside of certain well-known wealthy neighborhoods like Gangnam, so there are very few equivalents of inner city schools. Most kids, rich or poor, attend similar schools with similar resources.

However, it doesn’t really even matter that Korean public schools are supercifially decent across the board because the reality is that most of them don’t matter to an extent that makes a poorly performing inner city school in the US look like a fountain of opportunity in comparison. There are specific schools in Gangnam that everybody tries to send their kids to because they are known as magnet schools for the best universities. Average academic achievement is very high in Korea but the results are horrifically unjust – in a recent year it was found that 60% of the new hires by Samsung (the most prestigious employer in Korea) were graduates of a single high school in Seoul (plus of course one of the top three universities). Think about that. You don’t go to that high school and you’re basically screwed if you want to work for the biggest, most prestigious company in your country. No wonder the kids are committing suicide.

Korea has the highest immigration rate among OECD countries because even now, if you aren’t one of the lucky elite, you’re better off trying your luck in a foreign country. Imagine if the US had higher test scores but millions of our best and brightest left every year because the US had nothing for them to do. There is your South Korean “model.” That the President and the Secretary of Education know so little about what they are talking about when it comes to public schools makes me seriously worry about whether they know anything about the other things I don’t have any expertise on, and therefore have to take their word that they have a competent level of mastery on the subject.


A sage comment by a reader:

“The chief purpose of the Common Core standards –– one cited by the Common Core initiative, and repeatedly echoed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and Business Roundtable, and Arne Duncan and the like –– is that the standards are necessary to enable American students and the American nation “to compete successfully in the global economy.”

That’s demonstrably false.

American economic competitiveness is not tied to test scores; it is inextricably linked to stupid decisions made by politicians and corporate America.

When the U.S. dropped from 2nd to 4th in the 2010-11 World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings, four factors were cited by the WEF: (1) weak corporate auditing and reporting standards, (2) suspect corporate ethics, (3) big deficits (brought on by Wall Street’s financial implosion) and (4) unsustainable levels of debt.

More recently major factors cited by the WEF are a (1) lack of trust in politicians and the political process, with a lack of transparency in policy-making; (2) “a lack of macroeconomic stability” caused by decades of fiscal deficits and debt accrued as a result of boneheaded economic policies; (3) gross income inequities; and (4) political dysfunction.

The fact that the most ardent avid supporters of the Common Core are also
those most responsible for our nation’s economic problems is not very comforting.

Tom Loveless had the nerve and courage to publicly rebuke OECD for giving a distorted view of Shanghai’s test scores on the latest international test (PISA). He said that the tests excluded significant numbers of children from migrant families, and OECD ignored this practice.

I posted both his articles on the subject.

The director of OECD said Tom Loveless was wrong.

The Néw York Times wrote up the controversy, and the story left no doubt that China gamed the system, and OECD looked the other way.

Tom told the Times:

““They are presenting Shanghai in the best possible light” as “a paragon of educational equity, and that’s not accurate,” said Mr. Loveless, who objects to PISA’s comparison of Shanghai to other major world economies. “It’s such a unique system, I wouldn’t compare it to anybody,” he said in an interview.”

Congratulations, Tom, for calling out an obvious wrong.

A teacher in the UK describes what happens when superiors demand that he or should hit their predicted targets, without respect to reality.

It begins:

“The Secret Teacher

“Some years ago I was called by my head of department to discuss the grades I’d predicted for a year 11 class. They were aspirational and realistic. I was told to change them. My forecast was not in line with school targets for A*-C so if I didn’t change them I would be “targeting failure”. I changed them.

“I’ve got young kids, a mortgage and could do without the stress of a capability procedure. Morals don’t pay the bills. The class achieved close to my original prediction. I was admonished over my underperformance and the inaccuracy of my predictions – the predictions which weren’t actually mine at all.

“Following so far? Good. Because that’s target-driven education; a farce.
This September, Birendra Singh, who spent five years observing science teaching in three unnamed London schools, told BBC News that “the rate of cheating suggested in [my] small study may be indicative of a bigger picture”. He was right. It’s epidemic.

“We’ll go to epic lengths to fiddle controlled assessment. We’ll enter whatever number we need to make the spreadsheet turn green regardless of whether a kid has done the work. Until recently, we’d lie about pupils’ speaking and listening scores (easy pickings – nobody ever checked) to boost them to a C. In short, we remove every last scrap of accountability from the pupil and pull every trick in the book to make sure “they achieve their potential”.

“The result? There’s a demographic of our children with little cognitive link between hard work and achievement – that hard work leads to achievement. It doesn’t matter if you work hard or not, you’ll get the grade anyway and we’ll parade you under the banner of “improving standards”.

David Berliner has designed a provocative thought experiment.

He offers you State A and State B.

He describes salient differences between them.

Can you predict which state has high-performing schools and which state has low-performing schools?

The Roots of Academic Achievement
David C. Berliner
Regents’ Professor Emeritus
Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College
Arizona State University

Let’s do a thought experiment. I will slowly parcel out data about two different states. Eventually, when you are nearly 100% certain of your choice, I want you to choose between them by identifying the state in which an average child is likely to be achieving better in school. But you have to be nearly 100% certain that you can make that choice.

To check the accuracy of your choice I will use the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) as the measure of school achievement. It is considered by experts to be the best indicator we have to determine how children in our nation are doing in reading and mathematics, and both states take this test.

Let’s start. In State A the percent of three and four year old children attending a state associated prekindergarten is 8.8% while in State B the percent is 1.7%. With these data think about where students might be doing better in 4th and 8th grade, the grades NAEP evaluates student progress in all our states. I imagine that most people will hold onto this information about preschool for a while and not yet want to choose one state over the other. A cautious person might rightly say it is too soon to make such a prediction based on a difference of this size, on a variable that has modest, though real effects on later school success.

So let me add more information to consider. In State A the percent of children living in poverty is 14% while in State B the percent is 24%. Got a prediction yet? See a trend? How about this related statistic: In State A the percent of households with food insecurity is 11.4% while in State B the percent is 14.9%. I also can inform you also that in State A the percent of people without health insurance is 3.8% while in State B the percent is 17.7%. Are you getting the picture? Are you ready to pick one state over another in terms of the likelihood that one state has its average student scoring higher on the NAEP achievement tests than the other?

​If you still say that this is not enough data to make yourself almost 100% sure of your pick, let me add more to help you. In State A the per capita personal income is $54,687 while in state B the per capita personal income is $35,979. Since per capita personal income in the country is now at about $42,693, we see that state A is considerably above the national average and State B is considerably below the national average. Still not ready to choose a state where kids might be doing better in school?

Alright, if you are still cautious in expressing your opinions, here is some more to think about. In State A the per capita spending on education is $2,764 while in State B the per capita spending on education is $2,095, about 25% less. Enough? Ready to choose now?
Maybe you should also examine some statistics related to the expenditure data, namely, that the pupil/teacher ratio (not the class sizes) in State A is 14.5 to one, while in State B it is 19.8 to one.

As you might now suspect, class size differences also occur in the two states. At the elementary and the secondary level, respectively, the class sizes for State A average 18.7 and 20.6. For State B those class sizes at elementary and secondary are 23.5 and 25.6, respectively. State B, therefore, averages at least 20% higher in the number of students per classroom. Ready now to pick the higher achieving state with near 100% certainty? If not, maybe a little more data will make you as sure as I am of my prediction.

​In State A the percent of those who are 25 years of age or older with bachelors degrees is 38.7% while in State B that percent is 26.4%. Furthermore, the two states have just about the same size population. But State A has 370 public libraries and State B has 89.
Let me try to tip the data scales for what I imagine are only a few people who are reluctant to make a prediction. The percent of teachers with Master degrees is 62% in State A and 41.6% in State B. And, the average public school teacher salary in the time period 2010-2012 was $72,000 in State A and $46,358 in State B. Moreover, during the time period from the academic year 1999-2000 to the academic year 2011-2012 the percent change in average teacher salaries in the public schools was +15% in State A. Over that same time period, in State B public school teacher salaries dropped -1.8%.

I will assume by now we almost all have reached the opinion that children in state A are far more likely to perform better on the NAEP tests than will children in State B. Everything we know about the ways we structure the societies we live in, and how those structures affect school achievement, suggests that State A will have higher achieving students. In addition, I will further assume that if you don’t think that State A is more likely to have higher performing students than State B you are a really difficult and very peculiar person. You should seek help!

So, for the majority of us, it should come as no surprise that in the 2013 data set on the 4th grade NAEP mathematics test State A was the highest performing state in the nation (tied with two others). And it had 16 percent of its children scoring at the Advanced level—the highest level of mathematics achievement. State B’s score was behind 32 other states, and it had only 7% of its students scoring at the Advanced level. The two states were even further apart on the 8th grade mathematics test, with State A the highest scoring state in the nation, by far, and with State B lagging behind 35 other states.

Similarly, it now should come as no surprise that State A was number 1 in the nation in the 4th grade reading test, although tied with 2 others. State A also had 14% of its students scoring at the advanced level, the highest rate in the nation. Students in State B scored behind 44 other states and only 5% of its students scored at the Advanced level. The 8th grade reading data was the same: State A walloped State B!

States A and B really exist. State B is my home state of Arizona, which obviously cares not to have its children achieve as well as do those in state A. It’s poor achievement is by design. Proof of that is not hard to find. We just learned that 6000 phone calls reporting child abuse to the state were uninvestigated. Ignored and buried! Such callous disregard for the safety of our children can only occur in an environment that fosters, and then condones a lack of concern for the children of the Arizona, perhaps because they are often poor and often minorities. Arizona, given the data we have, apparently does not choose to take care of its children. The agency with the express directive of insuring the welfare of children may need 350 more investigators of child abuse. But the governor and the majority of our legislature is currently against increased funding for that agency.

State A, where kids do a lot better, is Massachusetts. It is generally a progressive state in politics. To me, Massachusetts, with all its warts, resembles Northern European countries like Sweden, Finland, and Denmark more than it does states like Alabama, Mississippi or Arizona. According to UNESCO data and epidemiological studies it is the progressive societies like those in Northern Europe and Massachusetts that care much better for their children. On average, in comparisons with other wealthy nations, the U. S. turns out not to take good care of its children. With few exceptions, our politicians appear less likely to kiss our babies and more likely to hang out with individuals and corporations that won’t pay the taxes needed to care for our children, thereby insuring that our schools will not function well.

But enough political commentary: Here is the most important part of this thought experiment for those who care about education. Everyone of you who predicted that Massachusetts would out perform Arizona did so without knowing anything about the unions’ roles in the two states, the curriculum used by the schools, the quality of the instruction, the quality of the leadership of the schools, and so forth. You made your prediction about achievement without recourse to any of the variables the anti-public school forces love to shout about –incompetent teachers, a dumbed down curriculum, coddling of students, not enough discipline, not enough homework, and so forth. From a few variables about life in two different states you were able to predict differences in student achievement test scores quite accurately.

I believe it is time for the President, the Secretary of Education, and many in the press to get off the backs of educators and focus their anger on those who will not support societies in which families and children can flourish. Massachusetts still has many problems to face and overcome—but they are nowhere as severe as those in my home state and a dozen other states that will not support programs for neighborhoods, families, and children to thrive.

This little thought experiment also suggests also that a caution for Massachusetts is in order. It seems to me that despite all their bragging about their fine performance on international tests and NAEP tests, it’s not likely that Massachusetts’ teachers, or their curriculum, or their assessments are the basis of their outstanding achievements in reading and mathematics. It is much more likely that Massachusetts is a high performing state because it has chosen to take better care of its citizens than do those of us living in other states. The roots of high achievement on standardized tests is less likely to be found in the classrooms of Massachusetts and more likely to be discovered in its neighborhoods and families, a refection of the prevailing economic health of the community served by the schools of that state.

Readers of this blog know that I have repeatedly argued that standardized scores on international tests predict nothing about the future.

Now comes an article in Forbes–Forbes!–saying that the international scores don’t mean much.

Scott Gillum quotes sources such as Sir Ken Robinson, Carol Dweck, and Yong Zhao to argue that what matters most–creativity, originality, initiative–is not captured by standardized tests.

He concludes:

“The U.S. has had a long tradition (and culture) of producing rule-breakers, game-changers and out-of-the-box thinkers — not easily measured in the form of test scores, but better captured in optimism, perseverance and innovation. Perhaps being “average” is the right result to ensure that we are not, as Robinson would say, “educating people out of their creativity.”

Anyone who seriously believes that the test scores of 15-year-old students in Estonia, Latvia, and other small countries puts our nation at risk cannot be taken seriously. Our competitive edge has always been those who think differently, outside the box, not inside it.

Mercedes Schneider has a terrific post in which she reviews Arne Duncan’s interview with U.S. News, in which he claims that American teachers “often come from the bottom of the academic barrel.”

His ideal of academic excellence? Examination hell in South Korea.

Schneider explains what Duncan finds so admirable. For one hing, his only way to think of education is test scores. Nothing else matters.

She wonders why Duncan is quick to blame everyone for what he sees as failing schools but never thinks about the ineffectiveness of the Bush-Obama policies. If they were graded, they would certainly be graded Ineffective. A dozen years of failed policy is enough!


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