LITTLE ROCK — A new study co-written by a professor at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville finds that student performance in U.S. public schools — even in school districts considered affluent and high-achieving — is mediocre when compared with student achievement internationally.
The Global Report Card, released last week by the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas, compares the academic performance of nearly 14,000 individual U.S. school districts — including those in Arkansas — with the average achievement of a group of 25 developed countries that include Germany, Ireland, Japan, Norway, Singapore and Australia.
“Being from an affluent suburb, unfortunately, is not a guarantee of world-class performance,” Jay P. Greene, who is the 21st century professor of education reform at UA, said Friday.
In the international comparison, using 2007 exam scores, which were the latest available for use by the re- searchers, Little Rock School District students achieved at the 19th percentile in math, meaning they scored better than only 19 percent of the students in the international group and worse than 81 percent.
Little Rock students ranked at the 34th percentile in reading in the global comparison.
In some of Arkansas’ more suburban and affluent school districts, the results were better.
The Bryant School District outside Little Rock and the Bentonville School District in Northwest Arkansas ranked at the 53rd percentile in math, which put them slightly above the average in the 25 comparison countries.
Conway, another district that can be considered a Little Rock suburb, placed at the 47th percentile in math.
Fayetteville, the home to the University of Arkansas, placed at the 46th percentile.
Bordering the Little Rock district, the Pulaski County Special district scored at the 24th percentile in math and the North Little Rock district scored at the 22nd percentile.
The reading percentiles in those Arkansas districts were typically 6 to 15 points higher than the math results. The Bentonville School District, for example, ranked at the 61st percentile in reading.
In school districts that contain the nation’s 50 wealthiest suburbs with populations of at least 50,000 — such as Greenwich, Conn.; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Reston, Va. — student test scores greatly exceeded those in large urban districts, but they “barely edge out the average student” in the 25 countries, according to a statement from the George W. Bush Institute.
The 50 wealthiest suburbs in the United States scored at the 52nd percentile in mathematics.
Greene, who is also a fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, was joined in preparing the study by Josh B. McGee, vice president for public accountability initiatives at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in Houston and a former doctoral student and research associate in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.
Greene said in an interview that the Global Report Card is intended to give a truer picture of student achievement in specific communities and the ability to compete in a global economy.
While other studies have been done comparing state and national achievement with that in other countries, there has been an inclination to believe that the poor showing by the United States is the result of low achievement in urban and high-poverty school systems.
“People who live in affluent suburbs tend not to believe that this is about them,” Greene said. “When they see sub-par student achievement results, the explanation is ‘That is the result of low-income kids in big cities. That’s not about where I live and where my kids go to school.’”
In many cases, the Global Report Card doesn’t back that up, Greene said.
“What we were doing here is naming the places where people live so they can see how their own district does compared to their international [counterparts],” he said.
Some districts do very well in the international comparison, but they are “far fewer” in number than people think.
Greene said the results of the study are likely to be “a bigger shock” in some of the wealthy communities in California, such as Beverly Hills that scored at the 53rd percentile in math, and in the north and northeast parts of the United States than they are in Arkansas.
That’s because Arkansas is aware of its challenges in education and is working hard to improve the system and is making some progress, he said.
Still, the international comparison is useful to Arkansas districts that have compared themselves with the Little Rock district or with state averages and concluded that they are performing well, Greene said.
“That’s not really the relevant comparison because their students will be competing for jobs globally,” he said.
Bentonville, which is one of the state’s highest-achieving districts, “might be a little bit alarmed,” by the results, he noted. Part of the challenge that Bentonville has had in recruiting executives to move to Northwest Arkansas is convincing them that there is as good an education system in Bentonville as there is in New York or California.
“As it turns out, we don’t lag far behind some of those affluent communities, but we are all struggling together,” Greene said.
Jessica Bollen, director of communications for the Bryant School District, on Friday welcomed the global comparison study, saying it was particularly valuable in light of efforts by the Bryant district to put into place the new common core state standards in mathematics and English/ language arts.
Arkansas is one of 44 states to adopt the new, more challenging standards. They are being used for the first time this year in grades kindergarten through two, and will be expanded to grades three through eighth next year and in high schools in 2013-14.
“That’s one of the purposes of the common core state standards — to make our students internationally competitive,” Bollen said. “As we start rolling out the new standards, it is going to get a little tougher for our kids and for our parents. But data like this gives us all the more reason to embrace the new standards.”
The study’s authors developed their own methodology using a variety of tests to give each district scores in reading and math.
The Global Report Card study pulls from the results of state tests used to comply with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In Arkansas those are the Benchmark and End of Course exams.
Also used in the study was the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is periodically given to a representative sample of students in each state and in certain courses and grades, and the Program for International Student Assessment, which is given to a representative sample of 15-year-olds in participating nations around the world.
The global comparison was greeted with some skepticism.
Each state uses different tests, making direct comparisons impossible.
Also, Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, criticized the report.
Buckley called the methodology “highly questionable,” according to the newspaper Education Week’s Inside School Research blog.
In describing their calculations in the report, Greene and McGee said the report card does not present a perfect comparison of district and international achievement.
They also said they anticipated that the study would be criticized because of the variety of tests on which they rely and because there is no one test that all students take. Each of the tests they do take were designed to measure different things.
“Of course, this criticism is true, but we believe that there is an underlying quality of student achievement that is imperfectly and indirectly captured by all of the tests,” Greene and McGee wrote. “There is information about that underlying quality that we can obtain if we compare across tests that would be lost if we refused to make any comparisons.”
Kerri Briggs, program director for education reform at the Bush Institute and former U.S. assistant secretary for education, said the study is of significance to all parents.
“The result of this study should inspire parents and influential citizens to get engaged in the reform effort,” said Briggs. “American students in both poor urban districts and some of the wealthiest suburbs are trailing behind the international competition.”