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How Are We Doing in Science?

Every so often students around the world take assessments that are designed to show how each country is doing in terms of student achievement. The assessment that seems to give the most interesting results in PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment). It is worth the time for teachers to take a look at this assessment.

The Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)released results last week; the U.S. had again ranked average in reading, math, and science when compared with other industrialized nations. Some folks in US education say they’re encouraged by the nation’s gains in science, but in the longer view are we moving ahead fast enough?

PISA’s survey is completed every three years. The results are based on two hour tests. The population that is tested includes a sample of 15 year olds. They do test over a half million of these students in 70 countries.  In 2006 the US was ranked 21st and with this more recent assessment we moved to 17th out of 65 countries. The scores are based on a scale where 500 is the average. Students in Shanghai, the country with the top scores, were 575. The US scored 502.
The difference, from a science content basis, looks significant and should be a concern  but what is more important is what the test reveals about how we teach our students to problem solve in US science classes. We have become a bit myopic about science concept chunks and focused on the vocabulary of science in many cases to the exclusion of some more important skills and concepts.

On any given day as I walk down a hallway in many Midwest science departments I will see students working hard and teachers teaching with full energy but a close look may reveal a cookbook lab where the student, if persistent, can get the teacher to reveal the answers without having to really do any heavy lifting in scientific thinking. This type of teaching often gets rewarded in US schools by teacher evaluations and district/state assessments. It is worth the time to take a look at the PISA test items and see how different the questions are in this assessment.

This assessment will be the focus of several blogs and an article on Hot Chalk this month. So, I will roll out the ideas in chunks. To quote OCED Secretary-General Angel  Gurria, Better educational outcomes are a strong predictor for future economic growth. While national income and educational achievement are still related, PISA shows that two countries with similar levels of prosperity can produce very different results.”

Before you roll out the argument that we educate a wider range of student abilities than other countries you need to look at the populations in the test. The diversity of abilities cannot alone explain the score differences. It is a contributing factor but not the key to our rank. I believe that can be revealed by looking at what the test asks students to do.

Check out the documents at this site:
http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa/

There is more to come on this topic but this assessment should begin the conversation about our own classroom assessments and what we focus on in our curriculum and testing programs. Simply seeing some of the released items changed the structure of several of my lessons and changes in my assessments will follow.

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