Fairfax County schools outperform U.S. average, many countries, on new test

A sampling of Fairfax County freshmen outperformed their peers across the country on a new test that measures how students compare around the world in math, reading and science. But the assessment also showed that the majority of the Fairfax students were unhappy with their teachers and found them unhelpful.

The wide-ranging study was part of a pilot program to bring the internationally recognized PISA test to American schools, allowing administrators to see how their students stack up against those from 70 other countries.

“We have been wrestling with how should Fairfax look at its performance. What are our benchmarks? Who should we measure ourselves against?” Superintendent Jack D. Dale said. “Our kids are from all over the World. We have to prepare our kids for jobs all over the world, not just in Fairfax or D.C.”

The PISA, run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, is a two and half hour test designed for 15 year olds and assesses their reading comprehension, ability to interpret graphs to solve math problems, and scientific concepts.

A total of 105 U.S. high schools in 20 states participated in the pilot, including 10 from Fairfax County: Chantilly, Falls Church, Hayfield, Herndon, Langley, Lee, Mount Vernon, Oakton, Woodson and the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.

Dale said that Fairfax County was asked to participate in the program through its relationship with EdLeader 21, a network of school divisions. The pilot was sponsored by America Achieves, an educational advocacy non-profit group supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies. Fairfax County did not pay to participate, Dale said.

The ten schools volunteered to participate in the tests, which were given last Spring and early Fall. About 690 Fairfax students, mostly freshmen, took the assessments; they were chosen at random based on their birthdays.

Dale said that the school’s that volunteered coincidentally made up a fair representation of Fairfax County demographically and socioeconomically. Some of the students who took the test were enrolled in Special Education and English as a Second Language.

Students at Thomas Jefferson, a magnet school for the regions' brightest children, did the best on the assessment, far exceeding their U.S. peers and those in Shanghai, China, who rank among the best in the world on the PISA test. Students at Mount Vernon and Robert E. Lee scored the lowest, with about 20 to 30 percent testing below the U.S. average.

For its size, demographic makeup and socioeconomic status, Woodson High School performed very well, Dale said, scoring significantly above average on all three disciplines. While Falls Church students scored at or below average on the tests, Dale said that the school did better than other schools of similar background.

Terri Breeden, assistant superintendent for professional learning and accountability said that the PISA test also gathered data on students’ reading habits, confidence in certain subjects and attitudes about education.

“The PISA gave us more information than any other assessment, on areas we have never had data on,” Breeden said.

The test also asked students to rate their relationships with their teachers. The questions asked if students got along with their teachers, whether they thought the educators cared about their well being and were responsive to their needs, and if they thought the teachers treated them fairly.

Only students at Langley and Thomas Jefferson said they had a positive relationship with their teacher. The rest said they had a “less positive” relations and gave ratings that scored below the U.S. average.

“That surprised us a bit,” Dale said. The PISA “gives us the ability to dig deeper about policies that we may wish to look at, such as student-teacher relations. Heretofore, we hadn’t collected data on that to know where we stood.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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