What international teens think about school in America

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The ACT announced Friday that computer-based testing will be available next year in the 18 states.

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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: International tests are one way of gauging how American kids are doing in school compared with other countries.

Traditionally, the U.S. performance has been described as mediocre, and this year was no different. The most recent test scores show the U.S. is stagnant in reading and science. In math, our country ranks toward the bottom of developed nations.

What these results tell us about educational priorities around the world is a bit more nuanced.

Special correspondent Kavitha Cardoza with our partner Education Week met with international students to ask them first-hand about the differences.

It’s part of our weekly series Making the Grade.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Calvin Leung loves soccer.

CALVIN LEUNG, Junior, Walt Whitman High School: I started soccer really young. And I just can’t stop playing soccer because it’s really fun.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Two years ago, Calvin and his family moved to the U.S. because of his father’s work. His mother Margaret, says if he was still living in his home country, Hong Kong, just like his former classmates, Calvin would have had to give up soccer.

MARGARET TSANG, Parent from Hong Kong: Calvin’s friends in Hong Kong have to give up playing soccer because they have to focus and concentrate in their studying.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: She says there are only a few universities in Hong Kong, so competition is fierce.

MARGARET TSANG: That’s why parents would like them to have extra lessons, even after school for almost six hours. So, I think they can balance studying and extracurricular activities here.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Other countries have, at times, wrestled with that lack of balance, and some have even turned to high-performing U.S. schools for lessons in building student skills, such as creativity and collaboration.

But, academically, when Calvin moved here, he found general classes much easier in the U.S.

CALVIN LEUNG: In Hong Kong, math-wise, it’s definitely super competitive and everyone, like, move in the same pace. So it’s pretty hard to catch up if you fall behind. But, in America, you can choose your own pace.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Calvin loves the diversity of U.S. schools and says he’s made lots of friends, even if many of them don’t know where he’s from.

CALVIN LEUNG: When people ask me about Hong Kong, I connect Hong Kong with the Hollywood movies they saw like the “Transformers” and the “Batman.”

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Hong Kong is also known for being a place that does very well on international tests, unlike the U.S., where the academic performance this year was lackluster.

The U.S. ranks in the middle of the pack when it comes to reading and science. In math, it ranked 31st out of 35 countries.

The PISA test is taken every three years by 15-year-olds from dozens of countries. What makes this test interesting is that it doesn’t gauge what students can memorize, in other words, what you can Google. The PISA test looks to see what students can do with what they know.

WOMAN: They are asked to interpret texts, solve mathematics problems.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Andreas Schleicher oversees the PISA test. He says the school systems of today are the economies of tomorrow.

ANDREAS SCHLEICHER, Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development: You look at a country like Korea in the 1960s. Korea had the level of the economic development of Afghanistan today, one of the least developed education systems. But it got education right. It became one of its most successful economies. The power of education to transform societies and generate both economic and social outcomes is just tremendous.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Economic prosperity, international competitiveness, national security, those are a few of the reasons countries take education and, by extension, these rankings so seriously.

As President Obama said back in 2009, countries that out-educate us will outperform us.

The U.S. spends markedly more money compared to other developed countries on education, but, by high school, American students fall behind. Schleicher says it’s not about how much a country spends on education, but how it spends the money. He says, in other countries, it’s all about teacher quality.

ANDREAS SCHLEICHER: And I’m not only talking about making teaching financially more attractive. I’m also talking about making teaching intellectually more attractive. And that’s probably where the United States is furthest away from some of the highest-performing education systems, where you really have a much greater investment in the quality of teaching.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: U.S. Secretary of Education John King has one word for the results.

JOHN KING, Secretary of Education: I would say that we are disappointed.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: King says the Obama administration has championed educational best practices, for example, an emphasis on teacher quality and early education. Many states have also adopted the Common Core, which sets high standards of what children should know at each grade.

But, he says:

JOHN KING: One of the challenges in our system, different from many of our international competitors, is that it is a highly decentralized system, so change takes a particularly long time.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: A lot of people say, you know, it’s not fair to look at these results and compare us to other countries which are more homogeneous.

JOHN KING: Sure, we have to be cautious about these results. At the same time, we can look at a country like Canada that’s had a very large influx of immigrants over the last few years and is doing better.

We can look at countries around the world like Poland, which is a country that has significant population of low-income students, and yet they have made a lot of progress over the last decade. And we should ask why.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Julia Kempster and her family moved from New Zealand to Maryland earlier this year. She gets asked a lot of questions from classmates.

JULIA KEMPSTER, Sophomore, Walt Whitman High School: Can you talk for me? Can you say the number 10 for me? Is it true that there’s one person to every 65 sheep?

KAVITHA CARDOZA: School is very different in the U.S., more students, more tests. But the biggest difference, Julia says, is, in New Zealand, she had to interpret and analyze information a lot more.

JULIA KEMPSTER: Here, it’s like you get everything from the book. It’s like the facts are the facts. And there’s lots of dates you have to memorize, because everything is very important. And it’s not a lot about what you think, but what’s in the book.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Despite the differences, Julia’s a typical teenager. She loves the social aspect of her U.S. school.

JULIA KEMPSTER: In America, like, you have a lot of dances and social things you get to go to, which is very fun. You get to do, obviously, like homecoming and everything like that. Yes, it’s fun.

TOM LOVELESS, Brookings Institution: American high schools place a huge emphasis on the social life of teenagers.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: And that’s part of the problem, says Tom Loveless with the Brookings Institution. He says homecoming, prom, rallies may help teach teamwork and creativity, but don’t improve academics. He says we need to look at the role culture plays in reinforcing education.

Loveless surveyed almost 400 foreign exchange students who spent a year in an American high school, and asked them about the relative importance given to math and sports.

TOM LOVELESS: I asked them, among your friends, among your peer groups, how important is it to be successful at mathematics?

And they said, well — the foreign exchanges said, well, back home, it’s fairly important whether or not you’re good at mathematics. In the United States, not so much.

And then I asked them about sports. How important is it to be a good athlete?

And with both boys and girls, and no matter from what country they came from, they said, in the United States, the emphasis on being a good athlete was much more important in the United States than back with their peer groups in their home country.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: There is a bright spot when it comes to this year’s PISA test results. The gap between rich and poor students in the U.S. is closing faster than any other developed country, but it will take a lot more effort to reach the top.

For the “PBS NewsHour” and Education Week, I’m Kavitha Cardoza, reporting from Bethesda, Maryland.

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