PI Original Ellyn Fortino Friday October 30th, 2015, 3:48pm

Experts: U.S. Should Look To High-Performing States Over Countries For Education Policy Lessons

In a new report, education and economic experts caution against using international test comparisons to judge and determine U.S. education policy. Progress Illinois takes a look at the research from the Economic Policy Institute. 

When crafting policy to improve education, the United States should draw lessons from high-performing states, rather than countries, experts argue in a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank.

"Lessons or education reforms that come from looking into what other countries are doing are often not valid or applicable to U.S. education," said EPI economist Emma Garcia. "It's very challenging to craft education policy based on international comparisons."

Garcia co-authored the report, "Bringing it back home: Why state comparisons are more useful than international comparisons for improving U.S. education policy," with Stanford University education professor Martin Carnoy and Tatiana Khavenson, a researcher at the Institute of Education at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow.

There are two key international tests, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) given to 15-year-olds and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessment for 8th graders.

Because of U.S. student performance on international tests such as the PISA and TIMSS, "many policymakers and pundits," the experts wrote in the report, "have wrongly concluded that student achievement in the United States lags woefully behind that in many comparable industrialized nations, that this shortcoming threatens the nation's economic future, and that these test results therefore demand radical school reform that includes importing features of schooling in higher-scoring countries."

It is problematic for a number of reasons to compare U.S. student performance as a whole with that of other countries, where societies and educational systems are different, according to the experts. They say it is "too simplistic" to make such international test comparisons because the United States is made up of 51 different educational systems across the states and the District of Columbia.

"While education systems differ among states, these differences are much smaller than the difference between lower-performing states and higher-performing countries," Carnoy noted. "Many states have made impressive gains in student performance and can serve as models for others. It makes more sense for Alabama to look to North Carolina for lessons before turning to Finland, Poland or Korea."

In cautioning against using international test comparisons to judge U.S. education policy, Garcia added that "there's no compelling evidence" to explain why some countries perform better on international tests than others.

"There's no evidence that students in South Korea, for example, score higher on international tests because of better schooling, rather than large investments families make in academic activities outside of school," she said. "For that reason, it is difficult to use high-scoring countries as examples for how to improve the U.S. education system."

Although U.S. students do worse, on average, than other developed countries on international tests, Garcia said that does not mean "U.S. students are not making greater academic progress than students in many of the high-scoring countries."

For example, the researchers found that students in Connecticut and Massachusetts had higher reading scores on the most recent 2012 PISA than students in the high-scoring countries of France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Massachusetts and Connecticut students also did about the same in reading as students in the top-scoring countries of Canada, Finland and South Korea.

In the most recent administration of the TIMMS in 2011, "advantaged students in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Indiana and Colorado performed at least as well in mathematics as their counterparts in high-scoring countries/provinces such as Quebec, England, and Finland," according to the research.

After adjusting country averages "for major national differences in students' family academic resources," the experts also found that "U.S. students perform considerably better than the raw scores indicate."

"We conclude that the most important lessons U.S. policymakers can learn about improving education emerge from examining why some U.S. states have made large gains in math and reading and achieve high average test scores," the researchers wrote.

As part of the report, the experts analyzed state scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) from the 1992 to 2003 and 2003 to 2013 time periods to determine where U.S. students had the biggest gains. The analysis controlled for a range of factors, including student family characteristics and school poverty.

In math, for example, eighth graders in Massachusetts made larger gains than students in neighboring Connecticut over the 2003 to 2013 time period. Student gains in math were also greater in New Jersey than in New York after 2003.

Students in North Carolina had bigger gains in math than Kentucky and Tennessee, though students in the latter states "caught up somewhat after 2003." In Minnesota, students gains were larger than in Iowa for most of the 1992 to 2013 time period. 

The results show, among other things, how "neighboring states can differ greatly in their student test score gains over the past 20 years," the researchers noted.

"The lessons embedded in how these states increased student achievement in the past two decades are much more relevant to improving student outcomes in other U.S. states than looking to high-scoring countries with social, political, and educational histories that differ markedly from the U.S. experience," the report added.

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