A large percentage of American middle-class high schools have not kept pace with countries like Singapore, Finland, Korea, and Germany that have raised standards, invested in teachers, and lifted their overall performance, according to a new report from America Achieves. The report, Middle Class or Middle of the Pack?: What Can We Learn When Benchmarking U.S. Schools Against the World’s Best?, finds that middle-class American fifteen-year-olds are “significantly” outperformed by their peers in twenty-four countries in math and fifteen countries in science based on a pilot study involving 105 American high schools that administered a new test known as the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) Test for Schools (based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)). The test measures students’ abilities to apply their knowledge to solve real-world problems, the kinds of deeper learning necessary to succeed in college and the workplace.
“In a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer progress by state standards alone, but the best performing education systems internationally,” said Andreas Schleicher, special advisor on education policy to the OECD’s secretary-general and deputy director for education. “With this new OECD Test, schools now have the tools to see themselves in the light of what the world’s educational leaders show can be achieved.”
Although middle-class high schools as a whole trail their international competitors, the report identifies several U.S. schools that are global leaders, including some that primarily serve low-income students. For example, North Star Academy, a nonselective, predominantly low-income school in Newark, New Jersey, cracked the world’s top ten by outperforming all but the average of nine countries in reading.
In addition, three nonselective high schools in Fairfax, Virginia, outperformed the averages of virtually every other country in the world. While two of these schools serve a more affluent population, the third—Woodson High School—is “much more solidly middle class,” the report notes. As shown in the table below, Woodson’s students outperformed students in every country and region in the world in reading except Shanghai-China. “In other words, it’s from the middle of the middle class, but its performance is world class,” the report says.
The report also highlights BASIS Tucson North, a nonselective, open-enrollment charter school that the report calls economically modest and diverse, with a student body that is 52 percent Caucasian, 25 percent black and Hispanic, and 19 percent Asian. As shown in the table to the right, BASIS Tucson North outperformed the averages of every other nation in the world—including Shanghai-China—in reading. The school also topped the international chart in math and science.
“This study highlights the great news that we can learn from individual U.S. schools that are leading the world in educational performance,” said Jon Schnur, executive chairman of America Achieves. “But this report also shows a crucial need for better education for all students including not only low-income communities but middle class communities as well.”
Each of the 105 high schools that participated in the pilot program received a lengthy report from the OECD showing results in terms of performance, students’ average backgrounds, and the learning environment at school. The report also includes international examples that offer strategies for improvement, which have yielded results in other education systems, such as high expectations, teacher quality, the importance of student engagement, and the need to create a supportive learning environment at the school. In addition to comparing individual schools with PISA results from the United States and other countries, a participating school can compare its students to students in both the top-performing region (Shanghai-China) and lowest-performing country (Mexico) in the OECD.
“These first 105 high schools were courageous to pioneer this international exam,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “While they knew they might get low scores, they wanted the valuable information to improve learning for their students. All students will be measured at some point. Schools can either take the OECD school-based test now to see how their students compete, or wait until their students enter the workforce and have market forces tell them how they stack up. Every community should encourage its schools to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Starting in the fall of 2013, individual schools can take the OECD Test for Schools. In order to get a statistically sound sample, participating schools need to involve approximately seventy-five of their fifteen-year-old students. Interested schools and districts can sign up to participate or get more information at http://www.americaachieves.org or http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisa-basedtestforschools/.
Middle Class or Middle of the Pack? is available at
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