RD218 - Comparison of Academic Achievement in Virginia with Leading Industrialized Countries

Executive Summary:
In 2011, the Virginia Commission on Youth adopted a two-year study plan, "Comparison of Academic Achievement in Virginia and in Leading Industrialized Countries," to explore the following issues:

• Students in the United States lag in academic performance when compared with students in other industrialized countries, particularly in science and mathematics.

• The 2009 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Programme for International Student Assessment indicated that, of the 34 countries evaluated, the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics.

• The United States falls far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai in China, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada.

• Today’s United States graduates compete in a global job market where highly skilled workers are in increasing demand. While other countries have made significant improvements in education, the United States has made only incremental improvements.

• The decline in the academic achievement of American students and the failing condition of public education has been prominent among national and state concerns about the United States’ ability to compete internationally.

• In the early 1980s, the Commonwealth of Virginia hosted a national meeting on “A Nation at Risk” to reform and strengthen public education. Since that meeting, Virginia education initiatives have included the Standards of Learning, the Virginia Preschool Initiative, the Governor’s magnet, charter, virtual, laboratory, and alternative schools, dual enrollment, year-round schools, and career and technical education schools. These initiatives provide options for Virginia students to meet their educational needs and, as a result, significant progress in student achievement has been achieved.

• Despite progress made to date, public education in Virginia is not immune to the challenges confronting American education. Disregarding the distress signs would be imprudent and pose a significant threat to state economic status and success in the global marketplace.

• Virginia needs a cadre of scientists, engineers, mathematicians, educators, physicians, and entrepreneurs, and a steady supply of the brightest minds in all other professions and occupations to maintain and improve Virginia’s productivity and competitive edge.

• It is critical to evaluate the academic achievement of Virginia’s students, relative to the reported outpacing in education by students in other countries, in order to improve and strengthen Virginia’s schools and learning opportunities for its students.

Exploring other countries’ educational policies has the potential to enhance Virginia’s educational policy and practice. A comparison of the highest performing countries can provide valuable insights that the Commonwealth may adopt or adapt. While it can be argued that comparing countries has limited meaning due to cultural and societal differences, the purpose of this study is to present and acknowledge these differences, and determine which aspects could be incorporated to increase student achievement in our schools.

Several factors were considered to identify countries (and regions of countries) that would generate comparative and contrasting data most beneficial to Virginia. Of the top performing countries on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) assessments, factors such as geographical region, population, population density, and gross domestic product (GDP) were used to narrow the list of countries used in the comparison.

Based on a careful review of the literature and other available sources, five countries with high quality educational systems were selected for a more in-depth analysis. The process of country selection encompassed a range of sources (governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental publications, surveys, international and national professional and academic journal articles, and websites) to identify the countries. Selection was made based on geographic diversity and availability of sufficient data.

The countries selected for comparison are:

• Canada was selected due to its proximity to the United States, its similarly diverse student population, and its decentralized educational system. Although not among the top five according to the TIMSS and PISA, Canada performs at the same level as Japan and New Zealand, and outscores the United States significantly.

• Finland is consistently ranked among the top five on international assessments and provided representation of a European nation. Finland provides outstanding education, with less emphasis on standardized testing and with fewer school system resources. This ability to do more with less may provide valuable information for improving the Virginia educational system.

• Shanghai is new to international assessment but significantly outperformed even the previously top performing countries in all three categories, according to PISA 2009.

• Singapore consistently ranks among the top countries across years, grades, and subjects, based on both TIMSS and PISA results.

• South Korea only has secondary school level data available on international assessments of PISA and TIMSS; however, the available data ranks South Korea among the top two in PISA Reading Grade 10 assessment and TIMSS Math Grade 8 assessment, as well as the top four in PISA Math Grade 10 and TIMSS Science Grade 8, and top six in PISA Science Grade 10.

A sixth country, The Netherlands, was added upon the request of the Virginia Commission on Youth during the preliminary presentation made in December 2011. An education profile for The Netherlands is provided as Appendix A.

This report is based on a comprehensive literature review of selected countries whose students consistently rank high on international assessments, and then compares their performance with that of students in the United States, focusing on what we know about Virginia students, whenever possible. The review attempts to identify attributes that explain/support the positive educational outcomes in the selected countries. Policies and practices that could be adopted in Virginia are identified for further study and a determination of feasibility. This report attempts to add some of the missing pieces in existing international comparisons through the inclusion of a qualitative perspective. Contextual factors provide a balance for the international literature on the quantitative differences in student achievement, as measured by standardized tests.

As the world becomes smaller through globalization and modernization, policymakers are reevaluating the goals and purposes of education. There are lessons to be learned from top-performing countries on international assessments, such as:

• Recognizing the importance of nurturing students’ knowledge base and their ability to conduct higher-level thinking;
• Recruiting the most talented young people to the profession of teaching;
• Preparing teachers in both subject matter and pedagogy;
• Establishing policies that provide both accountability and autonomy; and
• Fostering collaborative structures for professional development.