The recent results of the Program for International Student Assessment have teachers and those invested in America’s education system engaged in a spirited discussion about what is to blame for the country’s stagnant test results and what should be done about it.
The test, which is given every three years, measures a 15-year-old student’s reading, mathematics and science literacy, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Results showed that, over all, Americans who took the test scored slightly above students from peer nations in reading.
However, American students scored below the middle of the pack in math, and nearly one-fifth of the students who took the test scored so low it seemed some had not mastered the reading skills of someone far younger. American students’ results in reading and math have also been stagnant since 2000, and the achievement gap in reading between high- and low-performing students is widening.
There is no consensus on why Americans have not made much progress, and commenters, including teachers and former educators, shared their opinions on the matter.
Here’s a general flavor of those reader comments, which have been edited and condensed.
Raising teacher pay
Ensuring teachers receive competitive pay was one topic readers discussed. Mary, from Baltimore, said that if teachers were better paid, “we would raise and draw more and better qualified people into teaching.” Professional athletes and actors earn more money and respect than teachers and other public servants, she said.
That sentiment was echoed by Andy M., from Nashville, who said that teacher pay should be raised to compete with other high-status professions, and that increasing pay would attract a more “qualified applicant pool” from top-tier universities.
What to do with failing students?
Boston reader KV said there was no mechanism to deal with students who did not meet the testing standards. “We can’t hold them all back or we’d have 16-year-olds in eighth grade,” they said. They could not point to a single cause, but said a combination of generational poverty, single-parent households, a lack of early literacy opportunities outside the home and poor attendance were among the factors.
At least one teacher suggested that passing students who were not qualified for the next grade level might be part of the reason for undesirable scores.
“It is virtually impossible to fail a middle school class in many areas,” wrote Kevin, from New York. “As a high school teacher, I routinely get students who are at a fourth-, third- or second-grade level but have gotten the ‘gentleman’s D-’ for years. They never learn anything.”
Attendance policies in schools have also been eased in an effort to prop up graduation rates, he said. At his school, students can be absent over 15 percent of the time and still pass, he said.
Some readers turned their attention toward funding distribution across schools.
Bruce Shigeura, from Berkeley, Calif., said while teaching methods and improved curriculum could raise test scores, they could not compensate for insufficient public school funding. “Many, if not the majority of schools, are trapped in a downward spiral of low economic opportunity and low education performance,” he wrote.
Lack of foundation
One reader, Sam, from Cleveland, said not enough attention was focused on students’ home environment. “If the value of education is not stressed in the home, throwing money at the problem will not help,” he said.
At least one other person said the foundation for improving test scores could be found in quality preschools, many years before a student had to take the PISA. “If a child starts first grade from a position of disadvantage, it’s very hard to catch up,” Dot, from Miami, wrote.
Too much technology?
Julie Boesky, a former teacher who now works as a literacy specialist in New York, said that technology had negatively affected children’s vocabulary development, even in privileged socioeconomic circles. Instead of observing or engaging with adults in conversation, toddlers and babies are often staring at moving pictures on a tablet or mobile devices, she said.
The vocabulary deficit widens in school as reading becomes more challenging. It also leads to poor performances on standardized testing, during which students are expected to answer complex questions with an elevated vocabulary. More test preparation isn’t the answer, Ms. Boesky said on Tuesday. “It’s actually understanding the language that so often is a barrier,” she said.
A former teacher, Elizabeth, from Portland, Maine, said she noticed a change in students around the year 2000. Students were impatient to get answers, had a shorter attention span and were resistant to working through problems, she said.
“My conclusion: technology is not always our friend,” she wrote. “The newly arrived laptops in our schools were as much a distraction from learning as a tool for learning.”
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