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Duncan from the PISA Hole: 'Keep Digging'

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According to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the PISA scores released this past Tuesday were "a massive wake-up call." The scores show American students holding relatively steady in the middle of the pack of the developed nations taking the international exam.

I can't figure out what to make of Duncan's response. Certainly he knows that the 15-year-old Americans taking this exam grew up in schools dominated by the high-stakes testing of No Child Left Behind. He must also know that the other main trend in education during these students' schooling was a great increase in charter schools and other forms of school choice. One might think, then, that the massive wake-up call he's experiencing would sound something like Will Rogers' wisdom: "If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging."

Alas, that's not what Secretary Duncan's wake-up call is apparently telling him. It sounds more like, "If high-stakes tests directed at schools didn't work, let's intensify the policy and add high stakes for teachers." He's apparently hearing a charter-school siren as well, telling him that lifting state caps on charters will somehow increase overall quality in a sector that segregates and stratifies but doesn't improve overall test scores.

There's a weird thing going on here with test scores, isn't there? We turn to them when they seem to support our pre-existing policy agenda. But we ignore or denounce them when we don't like what they have to say. So let me acknowledge that, to some extent, I'm being facetious. The United States' scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) don't represent a crisis. Yes, the scores do mean something, but we shouldn't blind ourselves to other information. Go down to your local school and judge for yourself whether you see students who are engaged and learning -- that'll tell you a lot more than the PISA. Similarly, the fact that charters don't outperform (and probably do underperform) other public schools on standardized tests should mean less to a parent than a visit to her local charters and neighborhood schools.

Before putting much stock in our new PISA scores, do yourself a favor and PLEASE go read a 2005 article from the late-great Jerry Bracey, called "Education's Groundhog Day." Then phone up Secretary Duncan and urge him to read it.

Whatever we think of these tests, however, there's a hypocrisy emanating from Washington, DC (yes, that's shocking news) that we shouldn't ignore. Secretary Duncan is telling teachers and schools that they should live and die by students' standardized test scores. But when it comes to charter schools and when it comes to the record of two-decades of test-based accountability reforms, he won't heed the clear wake-up call from those tests: It's not working.

Either the scores should be trusted, or not.