Maryland is often lauded as one of the nation's top-performing states for education, and Howard County consistently ranks among the top school districts in Maryland.
But county schools Superintendent Renee Foose is among administrators nationwide eager to know even more about how American students stack up — namely, how students in their respective school districts perform compared with their overseas counterparts.
Educators worldwide are examining the recent results of a test given triennially to 15-year-olds. But Howard County has enlisted its students in a new version of the test — one that will enable individual schools to determine how their 15-year-olds fare against students of other schools around the globe.
Howard students will take the new test, administered in schools in member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which promotes policies to improve economic and social progress. The test was crafted and piloted by America Achieves, a national education nonprofit.
Foose said the school system is still in planning phases for the OECD Test for Schools, which will be administered in February. Participating students have yet to be selected, she said. Those taking part will have 3 1/2 hours during the school day to take the test, with breaks included, she said.
Currently, OECD nations take part in the Program for International Student Assessment, which is given every three years to random samplings of 15-year-olds as a benchmark for side-by-side comparisons of nations in reading, math and science.
Results from the most recent assessment were released recently to much international fanfare, in part because it showed that when compared with other countries, the U.S. performed below average in mathematics, while its results in reading and science were within the average for countries in the OECD.
Foose said the OECD Tests for Schools will offer specific and regionalized assessments, and give Howard County a glimpse of how its students compare on a world stage.
"We're going to use it in multiple ways," Foose said. "First of all, we want to see how our students are doing when we look at school systems or high schools around the world. How do our students stack up in math, reading and science? And specifically, if we're not doing so well in science, what is it specifically that our students do not know or cannot do?
"From there we're going to do school improvement plans around where we see our weaknesses are," Foose said.
Currently, Foose said, the school system has no mechanism that gauges how well its students perform in comparison with students overseas.
"This assessment gives us an opportunity, for the first time, to see how well our students are doing [compared with] students from Brazil to Shanghai," she said.
Peter Kannam, managing partner at America Achieves, said the OECD test "provides a picture of the whole schools' performance," testing "the essential deeper learning skills, such as critical thinking and problem solving, that students need to succeed in today's globally competitive world."
Foose said the school system anticipates that about 75 to 100 students at each school will participate.
"It is a small group of a random sampling from each of our high schools," Foose said. "A very small number of students will participate, and if parents of students want them to opt out, they certainly can."
Foose said results will come about two months after the test is taken. America Achieves will visit schools and discuss the results, she said.
"It's not a compliance assessment. It's not an accountability assessment," Foose said. "It's an opportunity for us to benchmark exclusively. It's not a measure of content per se. It's an understanding of content, but it's more about problem solving.
"Maryland emerges as No. 1 in the country as far as education," Foose said, "but within that, we kind of know which districts are higher-performing or lower-performing, but we're using Maryland School Assessments and compliance-type testing.
"But do students in China know [the same things], and what can they do in comparison to students in Cambodia, in Portugal, in Norway, compared to the United States?" Foose said. "And specifically, compared to students in Howard County?"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun