Virginia Student Performance: Mediocre by International Standards

by James A. Bacon

How well are Virginia’s public schools preparing students for competition in a global marketplace increasingly dominated by the knowledge economy? Most people would say pretty well. Sure, there are pockets of dysfunction in inner cities and poor, rural counties but our suburban schools do pretty well… especially in Northern Virginia where local governments are willing to tax heavily to invest in higher quality education.

How well does that perception stand up to reality? Not very well, according to a new report, “When the Best Is Mediocre,” published by Education Next. Instead of subjecting a city or county’s educational achievement numbers to national comparison, the Global Report Card (GRC) subjects it to a comparison with other developed countries with roughly comparable levels of development and wealth.

“Even the most elite suburban school districts often produce results that are mediocre when compared with those of our international peers,” write Jay P. Greene and Josh B. McGee. “Our best school districts may look excellent alongside large urban districts, the comparison state accountability systems encourage, but that measure provides false comfort. America’s elite suburban students are increasingly competing with students outside the United States for economic opportunities, and a meaningful assessment of student achievement requires a global, not a local, comparison.”

There are a handful of U.S. school districts where excellence prevails. The average student in the Pelham school district in Massachusetts, for instance, stands at the 95th percentile in math internationally. But most districts show a mediocre performance , if not an outright dismal one.

Let’s take Fairfax County as an example. Although the county does have challenges, including a large English as Second Language population, it has some of the best schools in the country and is widely perceived as one of the best school districts in the state. The average student in Fairfax County would perform better than 62% of the students in the United States in math tests — but better than only 49% of students internationally. In Henrico, the affluent suburban county where I live, the average student would out-perform 59% of students nationally but only 47% internationally.

The average student in the city of Petersburg, serving a mostly poor and minority student body, would outperform only 26% of students internationally. No surprise there. But in Loudoun County, one of the wealthiest jurisdictions in the entire country, the average student would out-perform only 51%. (For the most part, Virginia schools perform somewhat better in international comparisons on reading scores than math — but math is the language of science, engineering and technology so critical for international competitiveness.)

Use this interactive feature to compare your school district to state, national and international averages.

It’s time that Virginia gets serious about school reform. We understand the implications for global competitiveness. We talk about the problem a lot. Then we tinker at the margins. Nothing serious is happening. We are already failing the current generation of young people in this state. Are we destined to fail the next one as well?

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2 responses to “Virginia Student Performance: Mediocre by International Standards”

  1. we need to understand that this is not a teacher problem.. It’s systemic… and it has much more to do with how schools are operated.

    Teachers do what they are told. They DO “teach to the test” when told to do so…

    when you have an ENTIRE school that underperforms.. blaming it on bad teachers is just downright dumb.. and it is basically a simplistic answer to scapegoat “someone” rather than accept responsibility ourselves.

    If parents and tax payers DEMANDED that schools perform or else the administrators would be fired – I would say there is more chance of things changing than going after teachers or their unions.

    the truth of the matter is – for each school that has mediocre ratings – it’s the administrators who are to blame….

  2. Darrell Avatar

    Not so long ago, all we heard about was The Information Age. Then it was The Service Economy. And now the buzz is STEM. Here are the facts.

    I can send my kid to the Harvard of third world countries and get a premier degree for less than sending them to a college here. But once they have that degree, they can’t find a decent job because there aren’t any. That’s because we outsource science the same way we do everything else. It’s cheaper to build a quality lab in another country and hire their Harvard of third world country scientists to operate it. In fact, our own universities have a new website for farming out science projects to under used college labs here and abroad. An ‘ebay for science’ to give our kids intern experience for jobs that they won’t ever see.

    Yet here we are, crying about science grades when it doesn’t really matter because once again the paradigm has changed. Not every one can be a rocket scientist. We should be coming to grips with that educationally, especially when the only one building rockets are the Chinese.

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