Earlier this month, the results of international mathematics and reading tests were referred to as "sobering" news for the United States, by Kansas Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker. The results were from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) and included about a half-million students in 65 countries and economies, including the 34 members of the OECD, a pro-democracy, pro-market-economy forum. However, she believes that the U.S. could benefit from new Common Core standards meant to raise the bar in those subjects.
International comparisons of test scores have drawn increasing attention in recent years. U.S. students again performed behind such perennial leaders as Finland and South Korea in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) latest results of its international math and reading tests, released earlier this month. DeBacker said the results deserved attention in a report to the Kansas State Board of Education.
"It shows we rank about middle of the pack," DeBacker said. "It definitely, as a nation, gives us something to think about."
DeBacker also told the board the test results indicate Kansas and many other states are moving in the right direction by adopting more challenging curriculum standards for math and reading.
"We are getting more depth in terms of what we expect students to know and be able to do," she said.
According to OECD, U.S. scores haven't changed significantly from previous years. However, education policymakers and administrators moved quickly to interpret the results, with some expressing concern for the state of U.S. education and others questioning the usefulness and validity of a test that included 6,000 American students.
As Celia Llopis-Jepsen of The Topeka Capitol-Journal Online reports, the OECD, in its report on this year's results, wrote that the introduction of the Common Core math standards in particular could have benefits for U.S. students in that subject.
"An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains also in PISA," the report said.
That assessment was accepted by an assistant professor in the department of curriculum and instruction at Kansas State University's College of Education, Lotta Larson.
"Even though the PISA doesn't test the Common Core per se, I think there's a strong alignment," Larson said.
The Common Core standards are a national movement among most U.S. states to align their curriculum guidelines in math and reading. The standards have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia with Kansas adopting them in 2010. However, since their introduction, they have come under fire in the Legislature with conservative Republicans making an unsuccessful push to ban them earlier this year. Among their reasons for blasting the Common Core are concerns that it constitutes a nationalization or over-standardization of state education matters, and that it could lead to excessive spending on education.
To strengthen crucial analytical skills, proponents of the Common Core standards, which enjoy strong support among Kansas school administrators, say they ask students to go beyond rote learning. Those skills were precisely highlighted by the OECD report on the U.S.
In math, the OECD said, U.S. students showed strengths in "cognitively less-demanding mathematical skills and abilities, such as extracting single values from diagrams or handling well-structured formulae."
Yet U.S. students "have particular weaknesses in items with higher cognitive demands," the OECD said, "such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems."