As American teenagers continue to fall behind in math, reading and science, Flagstaff Unified School District is working to bring a higher standard of learning into the classroom.
Results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment test released Tuesday showed 15-year-olds in the United States had an average proficiency level in reading and science but a below-average proficiency level in mathematics compared with 64 other countries.
“America is slipping,” said Pearl Chang Esau, president and CEO of the nonpartisan education advocacy group Expect More Arizona. “It is falling behind. In a globally competitive marketplace, that’s a red flag.”
The PISA test is a global study conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The 2012 test evaluated how 510,000 15-year-olds from all over the world are able to apply math, reading and science concepts. U.S. students’ scores remained around the same as in previous years. However, the U.S. dropped in the rankings as other countries — particularly in Asia — showed higher scores than in past years.
FUSD Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Mary K. Walton said the United States’ PISA test results reflect an approach to education that most states are moving away from.
“In a few years, I really would hope that those measurements internationally will show the result of the efforts that we’re trying to do today,” she said.
Walton said Arizona has been taking steps in the right direction since the State Board of Education adopted the Common Core State Standards in 2010.
“It is really raising the level of complex thinking,” Walton said. “It is not three times seven. It is calculations and how would you apply that calculation to this complex learning idea. It’s not just rote memory, it is really application, which is fabulous. Instead of a mile wide and an inch deep, what the standards are doing now is they’re going a mile deep, slower, and really getting it through.”
TAKE IT UP A NOTCH
Common Core is an educational initiative sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Whereas each state formerly set its own standards detailing what K-12 students should learn, Common Core sets out a national standard that all children in the United States must meet to be ready to attend college or enter the workforce upon graduating from high school.
To date, 45 states and the District of Colombia have adopted the Common Core. Gov. Jan Brewer issued an executive order in September renaming the state’s standards the “Arizona’s College and Career Ready Standards,” but Walton said they remain essentially identical to the Common Core.
“We do have to take it up a notch,” Walton said. “Our old way of testing and expectations, let’s just say in language arts (said), ‘Do you know the character? Do you know the plot? Do you know the setting?’ It is so far from where we need to have students engaging in the world, to have critical thinking.”
Walton said FUSD has been focusing on developing students’ critical thinking skills since the Common Core was adopted more than three years ago. However, she said the transition to the new standards will take time, not just for FUSD but for the nation.
MORE PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
The district is trying to prepare for the new test proactively by using international standards and other states that have already adopted Common Core testing as models.
“FUSD has a great commitment to our teachers and to the students in this community and to the community at large,” Walton said. “We also have a lens on the world outside of us and we acknowledge that we need to pay attention to everything on the outside in order to bring the very best to our inner circle here.”
To bring in the best, FUSD has turned its focus to the professional development of teachers. Nearly all of the teachers in the district have already gone through state-provided training on teaching to the College and Career Ready Standards. The district also implemented a new teacher evaluation tool district-wide this year, which was required by the new state standards.
“We knew that the law was saying this had to happen,” Walton said. “Our district moved forward. We put together a tool. As a result, we’re one of the models in the state because they did not develop their tool as quickly as we did. It was a big deal.”
A committee of 40 FUSD teachers, staff and administrators developed the teacher evaluation tool and piloted it last year. It incorporates results of classroom tests, a school-wide grade, a district-wide grade and principal evaluations to determine which teachers are most effective and which ones need more professional development.
“That’s never happened before,” Walton said. “It is a pretty huge adjustment for everybody.”
Ultimately, Walton said higher standards for teachers and students will lead to better performance on exams like the PISA test. But she stressed that the most important goal is to make sure students who graduate from FUSD schools will be able to succeed in an increasingly global marketplace.
“We want our students to have the very best education for national and international advantages,” Walton said.
Michelle McManimon can be reached at 556-2261 or MMcManimon@azdailysun.com.