PISA: Why this international test matters and why my school did so well

As a busy high school student with a demanding schedule, the last thing I wanted to add to my plate was yet another standardized test. But my school signed up two years ago to take an international exam based on the PISA test, which is supposed to tell us whether we knew how to apply our math, science and reading lessons to real-world learning.

I knew it was important information for my school, so I was determined to do my best. I’m glad I took this test seriously, as did my classmates, because my school ended up showing big improvements compared to an earlier class.

Yes, I was impressed that our school scored higher than some top Asian countries in math and science, but mostly it was reassuring to know that the school my family chose for me was committed to getting better every year and was preparing me for the global education I would need to be successful in college and in the work world.

From what I understand, there’s going to be a lot of focus on PISA results in the coming days. A half a million 15-year-olds from some 70 countries across the world took the test in 2015, and there will be a lot of talk about how high schoolers in the United States compare to students in other countries. There will probably be a lot of debate about rankings, and some will say these tests aren’t really important.

But I don’t really agree with that. I think it was valuable because it showed that the way we learn in our classes—which is really different from how most other high school students learn–is helping us think for ourselves in valuable ways. Our science score backed that up, because it showed that if our school had been a country, we would have scored right behind Shanghai, China, which was ranked first in the world in science.

For example, I took the international test as a sophomore and what I remember most vividly is how all the science questions were short answers that required us to explain our reasoning–not just fill in A, B, C, or D on a multiple choice exam.

This is how it works in our classes too. It’s not enough to say “what” the answer is–we have to explain “how” we came up with our answer” and “why” it was correct. In our school, we have flipped the way we learn in most of our classes. Instead of listening to our teacher lecture during the school day and taking home problems to figure out on our own, our teachers’ lectures ARE our homework.

We watch videos of our teachers’ lessons and take notes at home, so if we get confused about a concept, we can rewind the video and make sure we understand it. Then we go into class and work on the problems in small groups, and we can get help from our teacher or other students if we get stuck.

Compared to listening to lectures all school day, this is a far more interesting way to learn and allows us to work at our pace. This is so important because our school is really diverse, and students come from all over the Durham area with really different learning abilities.

This year my school implemented a teacher mentor program, so every incoming student here is paired to a teacher who knows everything about each student’s progress–grades, tests, discipline issues, how hard they are working in class. Me, I’m pretty independent, but this kind of special attention helps when a student isn’t as well motivated, especially in the freshman year.

I think our school mimics the way college is going to be—the independence and responsibility required of us will help us prepare for college and carry our own weight. We learn how to learn.

Our school is new, with the mission of providing a “globally competitive STEM education.” So after knowing where we were ranked after the PISA-based test, our school felt validated. From that moment on we understood that we were seen as a competitive school, and that we needed to keep improving to make sure all students here are learning–not just the ones who are already highly motivated.

What do you think?
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Tanatswa Mashangeni

Tanatswa Mashangeni

Tanatswa Mashangeni, 17, is a senior at Research Triangle High School. She was born in Zimbabwe, moved to the United States as an infant and now lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina. She is in the process of applying to multiple colleges across the United States and hopes to someday attend medical school for psychiatry. Her school, founded in 2012, is an independent public charter that draws from 11 counties and 63 middle schools across the Raleigh-Durham area. It is part of the America Achieves Global Learning Network, which supports schools to participate in the OECD Test for Schools (international exam based on PISA) with the goal of using the results to help schools raise the bar.
Tanatswa Mashangeni

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