Washoe County public school students are doing better, according to the College Board, administrator of both advanced placement (AP) and scholastic aptitude tests (SAT).
The number of AP test takers increased a little over 8 percent from the previous year, and SAT takers increased by about 3 percent. Test scores also improved with Incline High students leading Washoe County by earning a combined score of 1,672.
That’s great news, but how do Washoe students perform in comparison with peer group school districts? After all, how else can we tell what kind of bang we get for our taxpayer dollars?
There is no general agreement on how to get and apply meaningful statistics to show comparative results. Within Nevada school districts all get the same per student funding but there are so many unlike characteristics between county school districts (rural vs. urban, Clark vs. Washoe) that comparisons are difficult.
Nevertheless on an international level the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has come up with the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) which PBS’ News Hour describes as “the world’s most important exam.”
The PISA has been administered every three years since 2000 to 15-year-old students in 65 different nations to “test and compare performances in reading, math and science with an emphasis on how facts and figures can not just be learned but used.”
Once again, the United States has scored solidly in the middle of the pack having been well outdistanced by Shanghai Province, Singapore, South Korea and Japan all of which placed near the top.
America’s showing has been consistently mediocre since the exam system started. This prompted US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to characterize such performance as a “picture of educational stagnation.”
“We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators,”” Duncan said recently on NBC News.
So should we start wheel-barrowing taxpayer money to Secretary Duncan so he can deal with the challenge?
Not so fast, say Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, and Martin Carnoy, professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.
Writing in the Washington Post they said: “We urge commentators and education policymakers to avoid jumping to quick conclusions from a superficial ‘horse race’ examination of these (PISA) scores.”
Duncan’s statements are “not an attempt to inform but rather to manipulate public opinion” they added. “It takes many months for careful scholars to analyze the data. Sometimes this analysis requires examination of more detailed data including disaggregated scores by social class, gender or race,” they continued.
The two reported several reasons for the complexity of international comparisons including a test score gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students; that scores are affected by the relative numbers of such students; that test scores vary more by social class in some countries than others; and that PISA test scores bear no relation to periods of substantial American productivity and prosperity … this last a sort of “so what?” approach to the question.
Although the controversy merits caution, OECD deputy director Andreas Schleicher, who administers the PISA program, recently said on PBS that it is important to look at the “drivers” of superior student performance.
“East Asia gives great value to education; they attract the most talented teachers into the most challenging classrooms, something the US has great difficulties with,” she said.
Hmmm. Wasn’t it Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Jim Guthrie who advocated paying really great teachers $200,000 a year?
Result: the teacher union, which demands that all teachers be paid the same, forced Guthrie from public office.
When are we going to learn?
Jim Clark is president of Republican Advocates, and has served on the Washoe County and Nevada state GOP Central Committees. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.