Every three years, half a million 15-year-olds in 69 countries take a two-hour test designed to gauge their ability to think. Unlike other exams, the PISA, as it is known, does not assess what teenagers have memorized. Instead, it asks them to solve problems they haven’t seen before, to identify patterns that are not obvious and to make compelling written arguments. It tests the skills, in other words, that machines have not yet mastered.
Like all tests, the PISA is imperfect, but it is unusually relevant to real life and provides increasingly nuanced insights into education for researchers like Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the test at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. After each test, he and his team analyze the results, stripped of country names. They don’t want to be biased by their pre-existing notions of what teenagers in Japan or Mexico can or cannot do.
A year later, after their analysis is finished, team members gather in a small conference room at their Paris offices to guess which countries are which. It’s a parlor game of the high-nerd variety — or, as Mr. Schleicher put it, “a stress test of the robustness of our analysis.”
When the team started this game back in 2003, it could predict about 30 percent of the variation in scores using its statistical models, Mr. Schleicher said. Now, the models can predict 85 percent of the variation.
So how do the researchers make their predictions? The process is not entirely intuitive. They can’t, for example, assume that countries that spend the most will do the best (the world’s biggest per-student spenders include the United States, Luxembourg and Norway, none of which are education superpowers).
Nor can they guess based on which countries have the least poverty or the fewest immigrants (places like Estonia, with significant child poverty, and Canada, with more immigrant students than the United States, now top the charts).
Here’s what the models show: Generally speaking, the smartest countries tend to be those that have acted to make teaching more prestigious and selective; directed more resources to their neediest children; enrolled most children in high-quality preschools; helped schools establish cultures of constant improvement; and applied rigorous, consistent standards across all classrooms.
Of all those lessons learned, the United States has employed only one at scale: A majority of states recently adopted more consistent and challenging learning goals, known as the Common Core State Standards, for reading and math. These standards were in place for only a year in many states, so Mr. Schleicher did not expect them to boost America’s PISA scores just yet. (In addition, America’s PISA sample included students living in states that have declined to adopt the new standards altogether.)
But Mr. Schleicher urges Americans to work on the other lessons learned — and to keep the faith in their new standards. “I’m confident the Common Core is going to have a long-term impact,” he said. “Patience may be the biggest challenge.”