By the numbers

American teens are no better at reading or math than they were 15 years ago, according to key comparison test

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

The reading skills of America’s 15-year-olds haven’t improved since 2000, while math skills have actually declined in recent years, according to new results from a test given to students across the world.

But science scores suggested one possible upside: a narrowing of the gap between affluent and poor students’ scores.

The test, known as PISA, is a key international yardstick for how much students are learning — and a justification that policy makers frequently cite for pushing schools and teachers to do better. But a tumultuous decade and a half since the test was first administered, U.S. students again landed near the middle of the pack in 2015.

“We’re losing ground – a troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world,” U.S. Education Secretary John King will say Tuesday at an event in Boston, according to his prepared remarks.

In science, though, the relationship between poverty and achievement is loosening. The U.S. saw the biggest jump in that measure of equity since 2006. The country’s share of “resilient” students — poor students who ended up in a top-scoring group across all countries — also grew, from 25 percent to 31 percent.

Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which organizes the tests, said he could only offer a hypothesis about the cause of America’s apparent increase in equity.

“What certainly contributed: over the last decade, there has been more attention to underperforming schools and underperforming students,” he said.

In math, the average U.S. score was 470, below the 490 average of the tested countries. The picture was brighter in Massachusetts, one of two states with its own scores this year, where the average math score was 500. Singapore, the highest scoring nation, had an average score of 564.

U.S. students overall did better in reading, with an average score of 497, and in science, with an average score of 496.

Compared to the average among countries that participated, a bigger share of U.S. students say they enjoy learning about science. More U.S. students also say they expect to have a career in science than the international average.

legislative update

Senators kill two education proposals, but plan to replace ISTEP moves ahead with a new high school test

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
The Senate Education Committee had its last 2017 meeting today.

The plan to replace Indiana’s unpopular ISTEP exam took another step forward Wednesday as the Senate Education Committee finished up its work for the year.

The committee killed two bills and passed four, including an amended version of the bill to overhaul the state testing system. The bill passed 7-4, but some lawmakers still weren’t happy with the plan — especially because the bill continues to tie teacher evaluations to state test results and removes a requirement for students to take end-of-course exams that many principals and educators had supported.

The amended bill would:

  • Require high school students to take a national college entrance exam, such as the SAT or ACT, rather than end-of-course exams. The Indiana State Board of Education would choose the specific test and set a passing score needed for graduation.
  • Create tests that would allow Indiana students to be compared with peers nationally.
  • Allow the state to create its own test questions only if the option saves Indiana money or would be necessary to ensure the test complies with Indiana academic standards.
  • Require schools to give state tests on computers or using “digital technology” unless they receive a waiver from the education department.
  • Create a legislative panel to study Indiana’s teacher evaluation laws and draft a final report by Nov. 1.

Some of the changes in the amendment came from state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick. Earlier this month, she outlined some of those ideas for the committee, which were similar to ones pushed by former schools chief Glenda Ritz. But that still didn’t make it especially popular with the committee today.

“I’m still not comfortable with where we are,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, and Sen. Jean Leising, R-Oldenburg, also expressed concerns about the bill, although Leising voted “yes” because the state is still required to have a test, she said.

“I’m very disappointed we can’t move away from ISTEP more quickly,” Leising said. “I’m most disappointed that we’re still going to evaluate teachers based on ISTEP results which nobody believes in currently.”

Here are the rest of the bills that passed the committee today. All of them still must face debate by the full Senate, and likely further discussions by the House:

Charter school renewal and closure: House Bill 1382 would make changes to how the Indiana State Board of Education handles authorizers who want to renew charters for schools that have failed for four years in a row. This proposal, as well as other changes, could benefit Indiana’s struggling virtual charter schools — particularly Hoosier Academies.

The bill was amended today to give the state board of education more control over what education and experience charter school teachers need in order to be allowed to teach.

High school graduation rate and student mobility: House Bill 1384 would require the Indiana State Board of Education to consider a school’s rate of student turnover from year to year when it assigns A-F accountability grades.

But it was amended today to change previous language that would have given schools two A-F grades — one reflecting state test results from students who move around frequently, and one based on students who have been at the school for at least a year. The amendment removes the two grades and instead would instruct the state board to consider student mobility in the existing A-F system, and “whether any high school should be rewarded for enrolling credit deficient students or penalized for transferring out credit deficient students.”

This bill, too, has implications for Indiana virtual schools, which have struggled to show success educating a wide range of students. The schools have complained that they often accept students who are far behind their peers and are using the school as a last-ditch chance to graduate.

The bill also includes two proposals regarding private schools and vouchers.

Teacher induction program: House Bill 1449, offered by Rep. Dale DeVon, R-Mishawaka, would create a program to support new teachers, principals and superintendents that would be considered a pilot until 2027.

And here are the bills that died, both authored by House Education Committee Chairman Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis:

Elementary school teacher licenses: House Bill 1383 would encourage the state board of education to establish content-area-specific licenses, including math and science, for elementary teachers. It was defeated by the committee 6-5

Competency-based learning: House Bill 1386 would provide grants for five schools or districts that create a “competency-based” program, which means teachers allow students to move on to more difficult subject matter once they can show they have mastered previous concepts or skills, regardless of pace (Learn more about Warren Township’s competency-based program here). It was defeated by the committee 8-3.

secretary statements

Betsy DeVos on American schools: ‘I’m not sure that we can deteriorate a whole lot’

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos isn’t concerned that a push for more school choice could inadvertently harm America’s schools, she said Wednesday — because she believes the nation’s achievement is already too abysmal for that to be possible.

“I’m not sure how they could get a lot worse on a nationwide basis than they are today,” DeVos said of achievement levels. “The fact that our PISA scores have continued to deteriorate as compared to the rest of the world, and that we’ve seen stagnant at best results with the NAEP scores over the years — I’m not sure that we can deteriorate a whole lot.”

DeVos was referring to one international test and another taken by a sample of students across the United States that’s used to compare performance across states. Her comments, made at the Brookings Institution, paint a picture that’s more dire than fully accurate.

On the international PISA tests in reading and science, the U.S. hovers near the international average, though it falls near the bottom of other industrialized countries in math. And on the NAEP tests, often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” math scores have been rising for decades, as moderator Russ Whitehurst noted, while reading scores have also increased, though much more slowly.

The comments reveal an unflinchingly negative guiding premise for the nation’s top education official: With nowhere to go but up, any disruption of the current system is, by definition, going in the right direction. (She pushed that idea further by invoking the fight between Uber and taxi companies as a parallel for the push for school choice.)

At the same time, DeVos indicated that she was uncomfortable using statistics as the basis for some of her own policies.

“I’m not a numbers person in the same way you are,” DeVos said, when asked specifically how she would want her success to be measured. “But to me, the policies around empowering parents and moving decision-making to the hands of parents on behalf of children is really the direction we need to go.”

You can watch her speech and her discussion with Whitehurst afterward here: