Program for International Student Assessment

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The Program for International Student Assessment, otherwise known as PISA, will be released December 3. It will offer results on the 2012 international assessment measuring 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics and science literacy skills. President and CEO of Expect More Arizona Pearl Chang Esau will talk about where Arizona students ranked in the international assessment.

Ted Simons: How do Arizona 15-year-olds compare to students around the world in terms of reading, math, and science literary skills? The answer can be found in the program for international student assessment, also known as PISA. The latest PISA report was released today and here to crunch the numbers is Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of Expect More Arizona, which is focused on building a world class education system for Arizona students. Good to have you here.

Pearl Chang Esau: Thank you so much for having me.

Ted Simons: This program for -- this PISA, how do they measure 15-year-olds?

Pearl Chang Esau: Well, there is an assessment that is given to 15-year-olds every three years to measure math, reading, and science. And it's given to about 65 different countries around the world of which 34 give or take are compared to the U.S. as a high wealth nation.

Ted Simons: Is it basically a standardized test?

Pearl Chang Esau: Actually the interesting thing about the PISA is that it measures application of real world knowledge. So what's nice, it doesn't measure any specific standards that a student is learning, rather it measures a student's ability to apply what they know to a real world situation, which is what kids need to do.

Ted Simons: Comprehension isn't just an afterthought.

Pearl Chang Esau: It's critical thinking, how to solve problems with math and reading skills.

Ted Simons: All right. So how does Arizona stand?

Pearl Chang Esau: Well, I think the big picture here is that -- Unfortunately we're still in the same place we have been the last few times we've done this, which is that we're average in math -- We're average in science and reading and we're below average unfortunately still in math. And really I think the big thing to take away is that our individual quality of life in the United States, really by extension, to take it to a even further level, our national security is very much dependent on our economic strengths and increasingly our economic strength is dependent on the quality of our education system. And the main take-away message from this report is that the United States is falling behind.

Ted Simons: So it sounds as though Arizona is not showing a lot of improvement. How are we comparing to other states in any improvement? Any improvement in those comparisons?

Pearl Chang Esau: The PISA measures the United States as a country, and only three states had enough students take the test to come out on their own scores. So that was Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida. But Arizona doesn't have its own set of PISA scores. But from what we can see, Massachusetts is the gold star state. Number one on the NAPE test, Massachusetts does better than the national average, and they do really well when lined up with Singapore and Korea and Finland and those other countries. But it's still two grade levels behind in math when it comes compares to Shanghai, which is the number one country for math or city for math.

Ted Simons: It looked like Shanghai was number one for math and science and for reading as well. Obviously they're doing something right over there. In terms of education. But when we talk about test scores and education, again, how much is creativity involved here, the critical thinking above and beyond -- How much of those factor in? America prides itself in innovation and thinking outside of collective boxes.

Pearl Chang Esau: that's so important. Those are often the soft skills that are difficult to measure. Increasingly we know 85% of high wage, high jobs in Arizona require a post-secondary education, some form of education after high school. And we know some employers and what they tell us, they're looking for students who can be creative, critical thinkers, who can collaborate as needed. And those are the skills we need to focus teaching in schools now. And that's not something you can measure by a test.

Ted Simons: I was going to say, are those the kind of things, Shanghai can beat us in the numbers but we can improve along those areas.

Pearl Chang Esau: The PISA is focused on practical applications. It does get a problem solving. When you read the questions, they're problem solving questions.

Ted Simons: what is Shanghai and some of these other leading nations, what are they doing right that we could look at and say, let's use their example?

Pearl Chang Esau: They look at education as an economic development priority. Education is their number one strategy for economic development. And I think increasingly we need to look at it that way as well, it's not just a social issue, but education has to be our top priority for economy and quality of life. Therefore they're willing to invest in it, they're willing to have the political and public will to support it, and they really focus on the quality of their educators. That's such a big thing. In both Shanghai and Finland and other places where they've risen to the top rapidly over the last decade or so, you're looking at countries that place a huge value in teachers. It's really respectable profession.

Ted Simons: And those are the countries that did very well. Obviously we're not at the bottom, or near the bottom, but Peru didn't do that well. Can you look at a Peru and say, we can learn from how poorly they fared to not even go anywhere near that direction. Can you do that? Can you factor that in?

Pearl Chang Esau: I think we probably prefer to look at -- Look forward in terms of what we can learn from other countries that are doing really well. I think one important thing we're doing is we're raising our academic expectations for students. We're expecting our students are globally competitive when they graduate from high school. And we're doing that by implementing new standards in Arizona schools. Most states across the country are implementing the common core standards, and the study shows that if we're implementing them effectively, they will make a significant impact on improving our PISA results in math the next time around.

Ted Simons: What do officials, what should officials take from this assessment?

Pearl Chang Esau: Officials like our elected officials?

Ted Simons: School officials and elected officials.

Pearl Chang Esau: Well, I think that our -- In terms of educators, they're already working incredibly hard. They very much recognize that our students need to perform in a globally competitive marketplace, and they're going to be competing with their peers. But on the whole, we have to make education a top priority in the state. We have to be willing to set high expectations, implement the new standards successfully, invest in education consistently and make sure our teachers have the professional development they need to succeed with these new standards. We have to implement a new assessment. Our old aims test is a 10th grade bar. That's not going to get us to a globally competitive place. We have to start early. It's the early grades, and everybody has a role to play, our community has to support all of our children reading proficiently by 3rd grade.

Ted Simons: Good information. Let's hope we start improving in some of these categories during whatever the next PISA test rolls around. Good to have you here.

Pearl Chang Esau: Thank you so much.

Pearl Chang Esau:President and CEO, Expect More Arizona;

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