Schooled Reporting on education

U.S. math scores behind the curve

Education | Experts say international standardized testing has limits
by Laura Edghill
Posted 12/11/19, 07:31 pm

U.S. students scored above average in reading and science but lagged behind in math compared with their international peers, according to the latest Programme for International Student Assessment test results.

More than half a million 15-year-olds in nearly 80 nations and subregions took the latest PISA exam in 2018, as the test is given every three years as a project of the Paris-based Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development. Four Chinese cities and provinces—Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang—along with Singapore topped the list, followed closely by Estonia, Canada, Finland, and Ireland. U.S. students came in just outside the top 10 in all three tested areas.

The PISA test assesses students at a specific age rather than a grade in an attempt to allow reasonable comparisons among differing national educational systems. Critics complain that schooling in the participating nations varies widely for 15-year-olds. Teens in the list-topping global financial hub of Shanghai undoubtedly approach their education differently than those immersed in Brazil’s sprawling agricultural industry.

Critics also point out that the four affluent Chinese cities and provinces atop the list in all three categories do not represent the bulk of Chinese students. Schools in each country are randomly selected except for China.

“It’s the only country where they allow the national government to select the provinces that are tested,” educational researcher Tom Loveless said. “It still makes it very difficult to interpret the Chinese scores.”

While scores made some minor movements compared with the last PISA results in 2015, countries largely stayed in their lanes. A few fell down the ranks, causing the relatively unchanged U.S. results to move up by comparison.

“It’s not exactly the way you want to improve your ranking, but nevertheless our ranking is improved,” associate commissioner for the National Center for Educational Statistics Peggy Carr said.

The results showed a widening gap between high- and low-performing students and a strong correlation between low-performing students and socioeconomic status. The disparity occurred in nearly all participating countries, highlighting that poverty remains one of the most significant negative influences on educational success.

Veteran high school English teacher and Forbes senior contributor Peter Greene conceded the data might contain some “useful nuggets” and praised the reading portion of the test for requiring test-takers to demonstrate the relevant skill of telling the difference between fact and opinion writing.

“But mostly, if we’re going to beat our chests and declare, ‘We can’t let countries like China and Estonia beat us,’ we should also ask what the prize for ‘winning’ at PISA is supposed to be.” he wrote. “What is the national award for having the best test-takers?”

Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne A worker removes a sign from a Tufts University building on Thursday.

Name dropping

Tufts University removed the Sackler name from five facilities and programs on its Massachusetts campuses Thursday, citing the family’s alleged role in the nation’s ongoing opioid crisis. As owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of the controversial painkiller OxyContin, the Sackler family is embroiled in a legal battle concerning the overdose deaths of hundreds of thousands of people from OxyContin and opioids like it.

“Our alumni, our board of advisers all have been troubled by the fact that we’ve got the Sackler name all over the place,” Tufts School of Medicine Dean Harris A. Berman said. “I think there’s going to be a great sigh of relief among all of them that we’ve finally done the right thing. Certainly, I feel that way.”

He described how students and faculty pressed for the change, complaining that the Sackler name had become synonymous with the opioid epidemic and thereby at odds with the mission of the medical school in Boston. Tufts has endured increasing criticism over the past year for being too closely linked with both the billionaire family and Purdue Pharma.

“It was emotional, not only for the cause, but because I lost my sister to the opioid epidemic, and it felt like a big win for her,” first-year Tufts medical student Nicholas Verdini told The New York Times.

But Jillian Sackler, widow of Arthur M. Sackler, defended the family name, stating her husband has been dead for 32 years. “He did not profit from it,” she said “and none of his philanthropic gifts were in any way connected to opioids or to deceptive medical marketing.”

All three Sackler brothers—Arthur, Mortimer, and Raymond—and their families have donated generously to other major universities over the years. Cornell and Yale universities have stopped accepting gifts from the family. In addition to stripping the Sackler name from its buildings and programs, Tufts stated it will not accept any further donations from the family. —L.E.

Instagram/laurent_simons Instagram/laurent_simons Laurent Simons

Transfer student

A 9-year-old Belgian boy who was poised to become the world’s youngest college graduate abruptly withdrew from his undergraduate program earlier this week.

Laurent Simons began primary school at age 4, went to high school when he was 6, and started his electrical engineering degree at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands when he was 8. He wanted to graduate before his 10th birthday on Dec. 26. A dispute over that date prompted his parents to remove him from the program.

Eindhoven officials said Eindhoven University of Technology had too many remaining exams to complete and that rushing his graduation would impede his academic development by robbing him of the opportunity to develop “insight, creativity, and critical analysis.” The university offered a mid-2020 graduation date as a more realistic alternative.

Simons’ parents, Alexander and Lydia Simons, rejected the revised date and announced plans to transfer their son to a university in the United States, where he would complete his studies and pursue a doctorate. They claim Eindhoven tried to extend their son’s time there to capitalize on his growing fame, but the university asserts it was looking out for the boy’s best interests.

Even though college faculty described his rate of learning as “simply extraordinary,” Simons said he still enjoys everyday 9-year-old pursuits like the video game Fortnite and playing with his dog Sammy.

Wherever he lands, Simons said he wants to pursue doctoral studies in medicine and engineering so that he can ultimately build artificial organs for people. His grandparents, who both have heart conditions, primarily raised him while his parents worked abroad. “I’d like to help people like them,” Simons told The New York Times. —L.E.

In harm’s way

In two separate incidents last week in Wisconsin, veteran police officers intervened to short-circuit potential violence at schools. The first altercation involved a Waukesha South High School student who pointed a gun at Waukesha Police Sgt. Brady Esser last Monday.

“The suspect would not remove his hands from his pocket and continued to ignore officers’ commands,” Police Chief Russell Jack said. “The suspect removed his handgun from his waistband and pointed it at the officers. An officer was forced to discharge his firearm, striking the suspect.”

The Milwaukee-area high school immediately went into lockdown protocol, and no other individuals were injured. It was later determined the student’s weapon was a pellet gun. Authorities charged the student, Tyrone Smith, 18, with second-degree reckless endangerment and three misdemeanor counts of possessing a dangerous weapon at a school, disorderly conduct, and resisting or obstructing police. He was admitted to a hospital for treatment for gunshot wounds and later released.

A day later, at Oshkosh West High School in Oshkosh, a 16-year-old student stabbed School Resource Officer Mike Wissink during an altercation in Wissink’s office. The 22-year veteran of the Oshkosh Police Department shot and wounded the attacking student, ending the incident before it could escalate further.

The student, Grant Fuhrman, was treated and released from a local hospital and is facing charges as an adult for attempted first-degree intentional homicide. His bond was set at $1 million. Wissink was released from the hospital on Monday. —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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