Filling In The Learning Gap

American school students have been making the news in recent weeks – – but not necessarily for the right reasons.  Some educational analysts are concerned after the most recent release of the PISA results.  The PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) compares literacy in math, reading, and science from a sample of 15-year-old school students from various countries around the globe. 

graph Despite multiple attempts at educational reform in the United States in the last ten years, including heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing,  the newest results reveal that American students are still slipping further and further behind their counterparts in other countries.  But cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” notes an interesting difference in the results of testing American 10th graders, and 4th graders:

On the PISA, U.S. kids typically score about average relative to kids from other participating countries. They rank in the middle of the pack, around 20th.

What’s notable to me is that U.S. fourth graders have usually done better.

Those tests (the TIMSS for science and math, and the PIRLS for reading) are not directly comparable, of course. That said, U.S. fourth graders have typically scored above the mean of participating countries, and typically rank somewhat above the middle of the pack, usually about 10th, noticeably different than 10th graders.

Willingham goes on to suggest that this discrepancy in test scores could be caused by the fact that the material tested in the early grades is mostly factual knowledge, while scoring well on upper level testing requires an ability to think abstractly and conceptually.  He believes that we are doing a disservice to our student population by focusing on “teaching to the test”, rather than focusing on strengthening logical thinking. 

Willingham’s conclusions lead me to believe that from the earliest grades, students need to be taught to make analogies, transfer learning from one situation to another, and decipher meaning from context.  This type of analytical thinking is the only way we can hope to lessen the learning gap between ourselves and the growing multitude of countries that are outshining us.

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