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Exam asks students to apply critical thinking skills to real-life situations

July 10, 2014 at 8:13 PM EDT
A new report finds that U.S. students’ financial literacy is only average compared to students worldwide. So what can be done to improve the performance of our schools? Education correspondent John Merrow reports on one test that may help American students compete more successfully in an increasingly global economy.

GWEN IFILL: A new report finds that U.S. students’ financial literacy is only average compared to students worldwide. American students also don’t do any better on other international tests which assess math, reading and science skills.

What can be done to improve the performance of our schools?

Education correspondent John Merrow has our report.

JOHN MERROW: It’s testing day for at Baltimore City College High School in Baltimore, Maryland. Students won’t arrive for another hour, but the adults in charge are already here, including Jill Morgan of CTB/McGraw Hill, the company that administers and scores the tests.

JILL MORGAN, CTB/McGraw Hill: The test is math, science and reading. It’s a continuous test and it’s approximately two hours’ times, and then it’s followed by a 35-minute questionnaire.

JOHN MERROW: At first glance, it looks like a typical multiple choice exam, the kind that federal law requires every third through eight grader and 10th grader to take in math and reading.

It’s a test Jack Dale, former superintendent of Fairfax County, Virginia, Public Schools is very familiar with.

JACK DALE, Former Superintendent, Fairfax County Public Schools: Typically, in our Virginia Standards of Learning test or the Maryland, it tends to focus more on what we call giving back information, regurgitation of facts and figures.

JOHN MERROW: American students are already the most tested in the world. Do schools really need another one?

PETER KANNAM, America Achieves: The value of this is 15-year-olds across the globe can take this, and so you can take it and see how your school is doing against Singapore, Finland, and Spain.

JOHN MERROW: Peter Kannam works with America Achieves, which coordinates the tests in the U.S. He argues that this one is necessary because it evaluates schools, the depth and rigor of their curriculum. Are they challenging their students to think critically, for example?

PETER KANNAM: Instead of just having someone solve a problem and bubble in the answer, it’s basically explaining your thought process, like a multistep word problem in math, or a text where you have to justify your response.

JOHN MERROW: The exam was developed by OECD, the organization that administers the international tests known as PISA, for Program for International Student Assessment. PISA is given in 70 countries every three years. The results allow nations to compare their education systems and measure their own progress.

The PISA assessment is one of the best assessments to evaluate critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

JOHN MERROW: Skills, Kannam argues, that are essential if American workers are going to compete successfully in an increasingly global economy. This exam isn’t given to every student, just a carefully drawn sample, because it’s designed to measure aspects of the school, not individual students.

At this school, only 83 of the 1,300 students will take the exam.

JACK DALE: And so the question is, can you get a representative sample of your kids in your school or do you always need to test 100 percent of the kids? Well, statistically, the answer is, you can get by with a representative sample.

JOHN MERROW: Giving this test to every student would be prohibitively expensive, because about half the questions require written answers and calculations, and those answers cannot be graded by a machine.

JILL MORGAN: You will have two hours to work on the test and then 35 minutes to complete the questionnaire.

JOHN MERROW: Reading from a prepared script, Morgan starts with a practice question. She directs the students’ attention to a table showing winning times for running events at the 2008 Olympics.

JILL MORGAN: Which one of the following was the most likely running time for the gold medalist in the women’s 800-meter race?

JOHN MERROW: The exam asks students to apply their reading, math and science skills to real-life situations. For example, they may be asked to analyze different cell phone plans to figure out which is the best deal.

MELIA GREENE: It allowed me to think differently. With standardized tests, you have to study for them as more of kind of reciting knowledge. But with this test, it’s more about drawing back on things you have learned throughout your life.

MALAYSIA MCGINNIS: It’s a better measure of how we apply information that we already know, instead of just seeing if we can recall something.

JOHN MERROW: After completing the math, reading and science portion of the exam, the students answer questions about their attitudes toward teachers, their school and their courses.

MELIA GREENE: I thought it was very interesting that they want to know about our lives and how we view math and science, and I think, if it was for a survey, it would help whatever research they were doing.

JOHN MERROW: Jack Dale had some Fairfax County high schools participate in a pilot test of the new exam in 2012. He was eager to find out how his schools measured up against the rest of the world.

JACK DALE: I wanted to find out, number one, were we, are we as good as we thought we were? And we were. The higher up you are, the better your reading score was.

JOHN MERROW: Each circle represents a different school.

JACK DALE: Left and right on this one has to do with a student’s perception of their relationship with their teachers.

JOHN MERROW: This says, OK, the teacher-student relationship is not as strong as we adults thought it was.

JACK DALE: Yes. Yes. And so we said, ah, you know what? We have been focusing on relevance and rigor. We also need to focus on the relationships and engage the kids to make sure that they can have as role models people they respect and admire called their teachers.

JOHN MERROW: Participating schools get a comprehensive 150-page report. Dale, who now consults part time for America Achieves, showed me the kind of detailed analysis the report produces.

JACK DALE: They actually rate your kids across six different scoring levels. The higher the level, the better off you are.

JOHN MERROW: Ideally, you want as many kids over here as possible.

JACK DALE: Over in five and six.

JOHN MERROW: The United States has about 27,000 public high schools. This year, about 300 elected to pay $11,500 to have a sample of their students take the exam.

JACK DALE: That is not a large dollar amount compared to the entire junior class being assessed.

JOHN MERROW: Is it your view that, as this test catches on, we can do fewer of the bubble tests that kids take?

JACK DALE: Absolutely.

JOHN MERROW: Are you then pushing a revolution?


JACK DALE: Am I pushing a revolution? I think what — in many respects, I think what the United States needs to do is catch up with the revolution that has occurred throughout the rest of the world.

JOHN MERROW: While many critics of standardized testing would like nothing more than to see those bubble tests diminish, the chances of that happening right now seems slim. Most states are changing to new curricula based on the new Common Core state standards. That will most likely mean more standardized testing for students. Testing schools may be on the back burner for a while.