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Thursday, July 12, 2012

What the Maryland School Achievements tests tell us

       The Sun had the latest test results from the Maryland School Achievement tests in the paper yesterday morning. Not surprisingly Howard County scored well in the MSA tests.  Having a highly educated population with a high per capital income so this shouldn't be surprising.  Having had children go through our school system I can also attest to the good quality of teachers and staff in our schools.  But one result that I couldn't help but notice was the drop off of math scores as children went through the grades. While the drop off varied from jurisdiction to jurisdiction the trend was seen everywhere.  Baltimore had the largest drop of 38 points, Anne Arundel 21 points, Baltimore County 24 points, Carroll County 18 points, Harford County 16 points and Howard County 9 points. So I guess we should be happy to have the smallest drop but I wondered why the drop had to occur anywhere.  When you compare the sames grades in Howard County in reading there is just a drop of less than one point. Other jurisdictions had drops of 4-9 points.   It is hard to read much into changes from one year to another as trends usually take more than one year to show up.
      In comparing math students in the United States to other developed countries in the world we come in the middle of the pack.   Finland scored first in this international testing.  Some of the attributes of the Finnish system are interesting in that they go against some of the emphasis on tracking and testing students.  Some of the attributes are:
  • The Finnish school system uses the same curriculum for all students (which may be one reason why Finnish scores varied so little from school to school).
  • Students have light homework loads.
  • Finnish schools do not have classes for gifted students.
  • Finland uses very little standardized testing.
  • Children do not start school until age 7.
  • Finland has a comprehensive preschool program that emphasizes "self-reflection" and socializing, not academics.
  • Grades are not given until high school, and even then, class rankings are not compiled.
  • Teachers must have master's degrees.
  • Becoming a teacher in Finland is highly competitive. Just 10% of Finnish college graduates are accepted into the teacher training program; as a result, teaching is a high-status profession. (Teacher salaries are similar to teacher salaries in the U.S., however.)
  • Students are separated into academic and vocational tracks during the last three years of high school. About 50% go into each track.
  • Diagnostic testing of students is used early and frequently. If a student is in need of extra help, intensive intervention is provided.
  • Groups of teachers visit each others' classes to observe their colleagues at work. Teachers also get one afternoon per week for professional development.
  • School funding is higher for the middle school years, the years when children are most in danger of dropping out.
  • College is free in Finland.
Says Professor Jouni Välijärvi of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä, and Project Manager of PISA for Finland, "In light of the PISA data, Finnish schools manage to activate learning among the whole age cohort more effectively than any other country. Students are not sorted into different groups or schools but different types of learners are learning together. In this kind of setting high achieving students seem to serve as positive models for their less advanced classmates. The pedagogy differs from that applied in systems characterized by tracking and streaming. Efforts are made to provide instruction to cater to the needs of different learners in terms of their skills and interests."

Preschool education — a relatively new addition to the Finnish toolkit — has been part of their educational system for the past 10 years. According to Välijärvi, "Preschools are nonacademic in the sense that no clear academic targets are set. Socialization into school culture and learning to work together with children is the central role. Preschool is not compulsory in Finland, but 96-97% of the children go to it."

     In comparing countries on any basis the differences in populations makes it difficult to draw conclusions simply on the basis of test results.  Finland, Japan and other high testing countries have  much more homogenous populations than the United States.  We see this effect within the school districts in Maryland and even in Howard County.  Schools in the western part of Howard County with less diverse student populations score 20 points higher than some schools in Columbia.

    So what can make a difference in these scores?  Certainly looking at the number of school days of instruction each year could be one factor.  The United States is near the bottom of the list of world countries for the number of days its students attend class. Asian countries spend 60 to 80 more days a year in instruction than the 180 days typical for American schools.  The summer break has been shown to have the most impact on children from lower socioeconomic families.
    If education is important to a country's development and prosperity in a global economy than we can expect a continuing decline in American prominence in the world in the 21st century.

The results didn't include Lake Elkhorn Middle and Cradlerock Elementary.  Maybe it was the name change this year that caused this.

P.S. 1
Lost Sheltie in Dorsey Search to be on the lookout for.

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