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The Global Picture: International Benchmarks Matter in Today’s World

Article by Anne Wicks September 27, 2016 //   5 minute read

Global marketplaces make the world smaller – and that fact puts a new onus on educators in every country. Their students must now learn in a way that prepares them for jobs that peers living in Berlin, Calcutta, and Seoul, as well as Albuquerque, Chicago, and Boston, may want for themselves.

Navigating the competitive nature of the world’s economy can be overwhelming and tiresome, but that reality is not going away.  As Americans we simply can’t hunker down within our borders.

That’s why knowing whether our schools are producing students who are literate, think critically, and are able to solve problems takes on a new urgency. We need to know how well our students are doing both at home but also in relationship to students around the world.

Data from the Global Report Card, which is contained in the State of Our Cities report, provides a way to make those comparisons. The Global Report Card compares data from state achievement tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress with the respected Program for International Student Assessment, which is given in many developed countries.

Here are a few points that stand out from the comparison, which uses 2013 data:

Some powerhouse districts in the U.S. are producing students that are ready for jobs anywhere. As Frederick, Maryland has grown up around Washington, D.C., the suburb’s school district has shown considerable academic success.  And that is not only the case within Maryland and the United States. The district landed in the 70th percentile in reading scores on the latest Global Report Card. Lexington, KY also landed in the 58th percentile on reading. Right behind them in the high 50th percentile for reading were cities like Virginia Beach, VA, Lincoln City, NE, Raleigh, NC, and Seattle WA.

What looks good at home may not look good abroad. A number of U.S. districts end up in the 50th or 60th percentile in their state rankings, which means they are scoring better than most of their state peers. They may also look good on national assessments. But the picture looks different when you compare their data on state achievement tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress to scores on PISA exams.

Consider these examples:

  • San Francisco landed in the 54th percentile on California’s rankings for 2013 math scores. But San Francisco was in the 33rd percentile when you look at the district on the Global Report Card.
  • Albuquerque ranked in the 51st percentile on New Mexico’s rankings for 2013 reading scores. When compared to peers internationally, the district was in the 36th percentile.
  • Madison, WI ranked in the 50th percentile nationally on math in 2013. Yet, on the Global Report Card, the Madison was in the 39th percentile.

Out of 114 U.S. cities measured, 110 of them scored below the 50th percentile on math comparisons. Math education has been a major focus for improvement in many U.S. districts, but the data from this report shows that we still have room to grow.  In fact, plenty of room to grow. Not only were districts ranking below the 50th percentile, they were ranking far below, with 21 cities at the 20th percentile or below.

The point in all this is not to make districts feel embarrassed or guilty. Rather, it is to use data to show where improvement is needed when the playing field is appropriately expanded.

In this case, looking around the world can help them understand what awaits them. Sometimes, that is stiffer competition. But districts like the ones in Frederick, MD, Seattle, WA and Lincoln City, NE show that they can compete with anyone, anywhere.

That’s the good news. The challenge, of course, is making sure more U.S. districts, especially in large urban centers, are achieving the same result.

The path to success includes policies that are backed by research. They include middle schools that keep students on target for graduation from high school, school districts that know how to attract, retain, and develop strong principals, and accountability systems that show whether schools are helping students meet high academic standards.

But none of that is possible without clear, actionable data that shows us how well schools are performing. In today’s world, that data needs to include international benchmarks as well as state and national rankings.