International tests considered for Md. students

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland officials are considering giving a sampling of students an international test next fall to gauge how well the state's public schools are preparing students to compete with others in the world.

The test being most closely scrutinized received a critical evaluation from the Brookings Institution recently because it is not geared to testing students on the material they learned in school, but rather on their general knowledge.

The Programme for International Student Assessment, known as PISA, was last given in 2006 in 57 countries, including the United States, and is scheduled to be given again this fall. While some Maryland students have taken the test in years past, the numbers were so small that the state got no statewide data. The United States ranked 29th out of 57 countries on the science portion and 35th in math.

National education groups and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have made international testing a focus of interest, particularly as the patchwork quilt of varying state standards has come under increasing criticism.

Gov. Martin O'Malley recently told the state school board that he wanted it to consider "international benchmarking" as one way to compete for federal stimulus funds. State leaders hope the tests, which cost $450 per student, could be paid for in part with stimulus money.

Last week, the Maryland State Board of Education asked state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick to look into testing as many as 2,000 students throughout the state, including a sample of students representing different subgroups such as minority and special education students as well as those from rural and urban areas.

There are two tests that might be used: PISA and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. TIMSS has been given in up to 48 countries every four years since 1995 and is designed to test skills taught primarily in schools. The U.S. has taken part since the outset. TIMSS is given to fourth- and eighth-graders; PISA is given not by grade but to 15-year-olds.

School board member Blair G. Ewing favors using PISA, after extensive conversations he had in Paris in January with representatives of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which puts out the test.

But others believe that the test is not well suited to Maryland's goals. Tom Loveless at the Brookings Institution recently released an evaluation of PISA and concluded that it doesn't test enough of the curriculum being taught in most schools across the nation. "There isn't much science to the science [test] items, and there isn't much math to the math [test] items," he said. "I would want a 15-year-old in Maryland to know algebra, geometry and arithmetic."

The test doesn't have straight algebra questions on it, although there are questions related to algebra. "You don't have to take an algebra course to do well on PISA," Loveless said. "What it measures is quantitative reasoning. ... It is a test of common sense."

Ewing called Loveless' comments "interesting, but largely irrelevant."

"What PISA attempts to measure is mastery of reading, math and science concepts. It asks them to apply what they know to real situations," Ewing said. "That is a prized 21st-century skill."

He believes Maryland has an opportunity to become a model for the nation by being the first state to give the test in large enough numbers to get statewide results. The results could be used in helping rewrite standards that determine what is taught. That effort, he said, could be done in collaboration with the nonprofit Achieve, which is collecting data and writing new standards that it hopes will be adopted by a large group of states.

Loveless has also criticized PISA as having a political bias that he says is evident in the questionnaire given to students after the test. The questionnaire asks whether they accept or reject certain environmental policies and then issues a grade that is not considered part of the test score.

Another school board member, Kate Walsh, said she favors using TIMSS because it tests more direct knowledge of what students know, but she said she has not yet studied the issue. "We will want to fully understand what the benefits of either would be," she said.

Ewing said he would like to give both tests if there were enough money to do so.

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