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How do Jeffco high schoolers compare to the world?


Last year, I had the same conversation with friends who are parents in Australia, Canada, Sweden and the UK. Probably just like you, we are all very worried about how well our children’s schools are preparing them for the world they will face after they graduate from high school.

From our work, we are all painfully aware of the challenges our kids will face, due to increased off-shoring of white collar jobs as well as the increasing threat to those jobs posed by the exponential improvement in artificial intelligence technologies that are increasingly able to automate higher levels of cognitive work.

To be sure, AI is not yet all powerful; its current strength is statistical prediction, and progress in acquiring more advanced cognitive skills like causal and counterfactual reasoning is still in its early stages. But progress in those areas is accelerating.

In light of what we see all around us, we all want to know how our kids stack up to the rest of the world, not just in terms of the knowledge they have acquired, but also in terms of their ability to use critical and creative problem-solving skills to apply their knowledge in real world situations.

If you share our concern, I have good news for you. For only $85,000, parents, employers and taxpayers can learn how students in each of Jeffco’s 17 district-run high schools compare to their global peers.

The gold standard in this area is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is administered to 15-year-olds (i.e., 10th-graders) around the world by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

PISA is a sampled, rather than “every student,” test and measures how well students can apply their reading, math and science knowledge in real-world situations.

With its emphasis on critical thinking and problem-solving skills, PISA differs from two other assessments that are more widely used in the United States.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is given to a sample of students in grades 4, 8 and 12 in every state. It assesses the extent to which students have mastered knowledge and skills in reading, math and science that are appropriate to these grade levels.

The PARCC/CMAS assessments are given to every student in grades 3 through 8 in Colorado. They measure the extent to which students have mastered state standards for these grades.

Neither the NAEP nor CMAS provides Jeffco parents with an assessment of how our students compare to their peers around the world.

While PISA is administered at the national (and optionally at the state) level, the OECD also offers a “Test for Schools” that uses the same sampled approach and globally comparable results scale to assess a demographically representative sample of students (about 85) in a given high school.

Learning how our kids compare to their peers around the world would cost Jeffco only $85,000 – a rounding error in the district’s billion-dollar budget (which this year is expected to receive a large increase in state funding).

When we lived in Canada, our provincial PISA results were an incredibly powerful source of feedback and spur to continuous improvement in K12 performance. Our kids, schools and employers all got a clear signal as to their future global competitiveness, and taxpayers had a strong basis for evaluating our return on the money we spent on K-12.

In Alberta, that return was high. Improvement in PISA achievement results led to greater taxpayer willingness to invest in K-12, and to higher salaries for teachers and much improved funding of their pensions.

There is no reason not to take the same approach in Jeffco.

Tom Coyne is a father of three Wheat Ridge High School alumni, and one in the works. He is the co-founder of K12Accountability.org.


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