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Fairfax High Schools Add a New Test to the Mix

Students in all 25 FCPS high schools to take new international test in coming months.

All 25 Fairfax County high schools will participate in a new version of the PISA this year that will indicate how each school scores compared to the rest of the world. (Patch File Photo)
All 25 Fairfax County high schools will participate in a new version of the PISA this year that will indicate how each school scores compared to the rest of the world. (Patch File Photo)

At a time when many are criticizing Virginia’s system of testing kindergarten through 12th-grade students, and calling for reform, Fairfax County has made what some may call a surprising move—adding another test for some high school students.

However, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) officials are saying the information they are gleaning from this new test is proving to be invaluable for improving student-teacher relationships, and shaping the way they help their students learn.

A New Kind of PISA

The new test is a more tightly focused version of the PISA, or Programme for International Student Assessment, which will allow Fairfax County high schools to directly measure how they stack up against students from around the world.

The current, most widely known version of the PISA is administered once every three years to 15-year-olds whose birthdays fall within a certain time period, in randomly selected schools across the United States. Around 200 U.S. schools are usually selected.

When results are released, they show how the United States measures up against countries from around the world. Currently around 60 to 70 different countries participate in the PISA.

However, it is not possible for individual schools, counties or even states to get their individual results—the country is measured as a whole.

Recently, by popular demand, the group that administers the PISA, the Organization for Economic Development (OECD), decided to design a version of the test that can be given to individual schools that opt to participate, so they can see how their individual results measure up to the rest of the world.

Terri Breeden, FCPS’ assistant superintendent of Professional Learning and Accountability, said last year was the first time the district had participated. FCPS high schools were invited to try the new test if they desired, and 10 schools opted to participate as a pilot experiment.

Breeden said the OECD requested a list of all 15-year-olds in the opt-in schools whose birthdays fell within the correct time period. From that list, 150 randomly selected 15-year-olds were chosen to take the test.

Students who were chosen were allowed to opt out if they wished, but most were very interested in taking the test, Breeden said.

“Our goal was to see if at least 50 were willing to try the test,” she said, which more than 50 were.

A Spotlight on Not Just Academics, But Relationships

The information gleaned from the new test provided invaluable information that Breeden said she believes will really help to shape how the district moves forward and views learning—because the test reveals more than just academics.

“Not only do you get information about how students did in reading, mathematics and science, but also how they feel their relationship is with their teacher,” she said.

The academic portion of the test is about two hours, Breeden said, followed by a student survey that asks questions about how students feel about their teachers, about their own abilities in the core subjects, and also about their school’s climate in general.

The results have been positive, she said.

“We're finding American students are very confident about their ability to do those subjects, even if sometimes their results aren't as high as, say, Korea,” Breeden offered.

New Test Already Prompting Positive Changes

District officials said the experience was very positive last year, and they are even more confident about taking the test this year—and this time around, all 25 high schools in the Fairfax County district will be participating, Breeden said.

What the district is learning from the new test is already helping to effect positive changes in the 10 schools that took the test last year, she said.

For example, Breeden said, Chantilly High School teachers said last year’s results helped them realize that students were only reading enough to be able to complete their homework or to get one quick answer they needed, but weren’t reading material very deeply and absorbing it. 

So, this past summer, the school revamped their summer reading lists to add in some books they thought students would enjoy reading, to help them foster more of an appreciation of reading in general.

“The results are also helping the district learn how important the student-teacher relationship is, so we are now exploring how to deepen that more, and looking at different models,” Breeden added.

Breeden said she thinks a lot of teachers, administrators and officials are finding individual schools’ PISA results much more valuable and insightful than other types of tests.

“You get richer results, because you can ask questions that are open-ended, give partial credit for some answers, and things like that,” she said. “They’re hand-scored, rather than fed into a machine.”

Recent Results for PISA in United States

Many are saying that results of the PISA have been soberingly stagnant in the United States, pretty much since the test was first administered in 2000.

On Dec. 3, results were released for the 2012 PISA.

The Washington Post reports that the country’s scores were “average” in reading and science, falling about in the middle of the pack worldwide, but were “below average” in math.

Yet, results in other countries such as Shanghai, Singapore and other Asian provinces have “soared.”

“Our scores are stagnant. We’re not seeing any improvement for our 15-year-olds,” Jack Buckley, commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics, the research arm of the Education Department, told the Post. “But our [world] ranking is slipping because a lot of these other countries are improving.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the Post the scores were a “brutal truth” that “must serve as a wake-up call” for the country.

Out of the 64 countries that took the 2012 PISA test, the U.S. ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading, reported Politico.

Fairfax County High Schools Gearing Up for New PISA in Coming Months

Breeden said this year, the 25 high schools were fortunate to be able to choose their testing dates, whereas last year, the 10 pilot schools had to test in May, which was difficult due to other exams like Advanced Placements (APs), SATs and finals going on.

This year, all 25 high schools are preparing to take the new PISA in February and March, which Breeden thinks will make the test-taking even more successful and smooth.

“The schools now know more about it,” she said. “No one had ever done it before, when we did it last year. Anytime you do something the first time, it can be confusing.”

“I’m excited,” she said. “Because we believe Fairfax is a world-class school system.”


TELL US – What do you think of the U.S. rankings in the 2012 PISA? What do you think of Fairfax County high schools opting to take the new PISA for individual schools? Tell us your thoughts in the comments.


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