President Aims to Shift National Testing Focus

Published April 11, 2012

In his $70 billion 2012 budget request for the U.S. Department of Education, President Barack Obama seeks to reduce funding for the nation’s top education comparison test, the National Assessment for Educational Progress, by $6 million.

The money isn’t going back to the taxpayers, though. The president is requesting the same amount for a pilot program states could use to tie state tests to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

It’s debatable whether shifting to PISA is an improvement over the status quo, said Jonathan Plucker, director of Indiana University’s Center for Evaluation and Education Policy. Though international testing data is important in evaluating U.S. education, PISA may not be the best indicator, he said.

“We already have really good international data,” he said. “NAEP is one of the best tests in the world, and they keep investing a lot of time, talent, and money in making it even better. Anything that could potentially harm that, I’m not sure is in the country’s best interest.”

Politically Influenced Budgeting
PISA surveys 15-year-olds from more than 70 industrialized countries every three years under the assumption most have completed their compulsory education. PISA tests reading, math, and science literacy, requiring students to answer both multiple choice and independent reasoning questions.

However, “There are clearly ideological biases built into PISA,” said Mark Schneider, former commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. “It is clearly a European-dominated test. It’s a legitimate, reasonable test, but the biggest problem is that we think that there’s more in it than there really is. The current administration puts way too much stock into the kinds of lessons we could learn from PISA.”

The Obama administration may view the popular PISA as a smart political move during a campaign year, Plucker said, though the line item is likely to garner little attention.

“They’re trying to appear fiscally conservative, so we’re going to add this sexy new comparison, but to do this we have to cut from somewhere else,” Plucker said.

U.S. Losing Its Advantage
U.S. educators and policymakers are rightly concerned how quickly international students are outstripping Americans in an increasingly global economy.

“We live in a global world, and we need to think about competing with more than just the states next door, but there’s way too much emphasis on the lessons we could learn from PISA, which are limited,” Schneider said.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s 2011 data, the U.S. has a high percentage of college-educated individuals, but due to the “rapid expansion of tertiary education both in the industrialized world and in emerging economies, the U.S. is fast losing its advantage.”

“The United States actually spends more per student than any other country in the world with one or two possible exceptions, and it’s not in the top dozen in PISA results,” said Herb Walberg, a Heartland Institute policy advisor and Hoover Institution fellow. “The United States is not going to continue to lead the world if it’s backward [in education].”

Better Alternatives
One technical problem with shifting to PISA is comparison basis. In the United States, 15-year-olds are found in multiple grades. Another global test, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, samples by grade instead of age.

“TIMSS translates into policy interpretation a lot better,” Plucker said. “We’ve learned a lot when states have taken TIMSS, and at least three have done that [Indiana, Massachusetts, and Minnesota]. At the same time, NAEP and TIMSS are fairly similar.”

Walberg says the discretionary $6 million could be better spend to calibrate NAEP to PISA for “universal scales,” and that a stronger focus on state tests and privatization should be priorities.

“Not only do we have terrible test scores, but probably a very sizeable amount of cheating,” Walberg said. “Instead of PISA or NAEP, I would strongly favor private organizations doing the testing and certifying the results.”

That would be analogous to the process in law and medical school, he said, where students must take a test independent of their school to graduate.

“Keep it in the private sector where you have more entrepreneurship and firmness,” he said.


Image by Shannon Muskopf