Commentary: Time to think global in testing U.S. students

By: - November 19, 2007 12:00 am

Today, it’s less important how students in Iowa or Oregon compare to those in Alabama or Virginia on a national test. What matters most is how students in North Carolina or Texas compare to those in Denmark or Russia, and so on.

In short, educational protectionism is outdated and ignores the realities of the 21st century global economy.

In the Global Competitiveness Report 2007-2008 released last month by the World Economic Forum, the United States again ranked as the world’s most competitive economy. Yet the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS)study, administered in 46 countries, found that U.S. eighth-graders ranked 14th in mathematics achievement. And on the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, U.S. students placed below average in math, science and problem-solving among countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. This is a major concern because the most important factor in competitiveness is education and training of the labor force. Thus, U.S. education performance today is the best indicator of America’s competitiveness tomorrow.

The United States faces significant challenges in the international marketplace not only from Europe but also from rapidly developing countries like China and India, to say nothing of regional innovation centers in Brazil, Eastern Europe and many other parts of the world. The countries that benefit in this new global, entrepreneurial and knowledge-based economy will be those that have the most highly skilled and educated labor force. The United States will witness major reductions in its real wages and real income, and thus our standard of living, if our workforce loses its current competitive edge.

So how do we ensure that our students are prepared to compete in the global economy now and in the future? We must start by adopting the correct conceptual standard.

Elementary and secondary education in the United States has traditionally been the jurisdiction of state and local governments. Although the federal government has a long history of funding education, it was not until enactment of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) in 2002 that the federal government established a broader role in education, centering on accountability and transparency. NCLB, which built on momentum already created by governors around standards and assessments, established a federal accountability framework that requires annual state testing for mathematics and reading and occasional testing in science for elementary and secondary students. However, it left decisions regarding specific tests with states.

Over the last decade, states have made considerable progress both in implementing their own standards and assessments systems and in complying with the additional requirements of NCLB. Yet student test scores have not exhibited the dramatic improvements hoped for by many observers. This slow growth in student achievement led to calls by some business executives and education leaders for the federal government to establish federal standards and federal tests. But the solution to the competitiveness challenge is not enacting or adopting federal standards or tests. Rather, the solution is for the states to work together to adopt internationally benchmarked standards. The reasons for this strategy are both conceptual and political.

First, the United States must understand that the global marketplace is here now. Today, the most creative workers are internationally mobile, and most major corporations are multinational. They can locate offices and plants anywhere in the world and will do so in the nation with the most innovative, educated and highly skilled labor force-and that will become the high-wage, high-income nation.

To gauge our future competitiveness, the United States needs to know each year how our students are performing compared to their international peers, particularly in relation to major trading partners such as Brazil, Denmark, China and India. International benchmarking will allow us to do this.

Second, the federal government has little credibility to set national standards that incorporate input from state and local governments and, more importantly, that inspire grassroots adoption by teachers, school administrators and citizens nationwide. The federal legislative process is too skewed by ideology and partisanship, which often is biased by a small group of legislators in key committee and leadership positions. Even if the U.S. Department of Education set the standards, similar problems would exist because the department’s agenda generally reflects the values of the sitting president. Neither approach would produce a set of practical standards with the credibility and broad support necessary to move the nation forward.

Third, because internationally benchmarked standards will correctly show how individual states perform relative to our major trading partners, they can be used to rally citizens, students and educators to adopt education standards and practices that support higher achievement by U.S. students.

To ensure our students have the education and training to compete, a small group of states needs to come together and develop the appropriate concept and process to benchmark their standards. The system would be informed by the two current international tests, TIMMS and the PISA. This consortium of leadership states would vet the concepts and process with all states to ensure ownership. The standards, however, must be dynamic and change over time; thus, the process established is critical.

Over the last two decades, states have provided the leadership to create education standards and assessments. Benchmarking them to international standards is just the next step. Further, most of the expertise necessary to take that next step resides in the states, not the federal government. The existing NCLB framework is helpful, but governors, chief state school officials and legislators understand the urgency of international benchmarking, and they clearly understand the link to competitiveness. They are committed to continuing the momentum toward world-class education systems.

Raymond C. Scheppach, Ph.D., is the executive director of the National Governors Association. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Governors Association. 

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