Assessment Education Perspectives

All Assessment Leads to Inferences

All Assessment Leads to Inferences

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results come out this month. In fact, every three years PISA results are announced. This international assessment measures 15-year-old students’ reading, mathematics, and science literacy. The world starts talking about which of the 70 countries are doing well in what content areas and asks questions about those who are not. Educators flock to the countries showing high scores to see what is happening differently in those locations. Additionally, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2015 results are available now. More than 60 countries participated in TIMSS at grades 4 and 8, with grade 9 participating in the TIMSS Advanced. TIMSS assesses two-dimensionally, first at a content dimension and second at a cognitive dimension.

What do these two international assessments mean for classroom teachers?

First, teachers need to know that policy changes are influenced by the results of these assessments. And policy changes trickle down to the district and school level. In 2012 then US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that the TIMSS results “underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps.” Duncan concluded these results justified state and local reforms pursued the two previous years.

For classroom teachers, dig into details to avoid making inferences using assessment data. Aggregated data presents pictures that may not hold the same insight as disaggregated data when it comes to decision-making.

Second, “there is no clear way to divide test takers from different countries into social class groups that reflect comparable social background characteristics relevant to academic performance.” (Carnoy & Rothstein, 2013) Socio-economic status can play a factor in student achievement. It doesn’t have to but it can.

As a classroom teacher use these international assessments as a reminder to disaggregate your data into as many useful sub-groups as possible before identifying trends and making broad inferences, which might lead to changes that aren’t as useful as you might want them to be.

Third, both of these assessments have databases available for deeper analysis. However even with deeper analysis determining cause for many observations is not possible with the information provided.

While students create the majority of data in the classroom, as the teacher you have access to all of it – individual students, historical data, and personal background. Victoria Bernhardt talks about four kinds of data: demographic, achievement, program and perception. For the students in your classroom you either have these types or can get them, giving you the 360-data view of each student in your class.

Fourth, some broad sweeping inferences may affect our curricula. For instance, in mathematics the ideas about teaching more depth and less breadth have caused changes to curricula. Regardless of the content enhancing analysis, problem solving, decision making, and reasoning are all skills needed by all students to prepare to contribute to a global society.

Standards used in your school probably call out all of the skills listed above. What data are you currently using to assess and then guide your decisions about where, what and how to teach “soft” skills like reasoning, problem solving, and critical thinking?


What big questions to these international assessments raise?

PISA and TIMSS raise many questions. For example, the TIMSS video study, which started in 1993 and looked at teaching in classrooms throughout Japan, Germany and the US gave us insights into instructional practices in those three countries (Stigler and Herbert, 2007?).

For me personally, one of the big take-aways was that in Japan teachers left the learning on the wall throughout the entire lesson as a reference point for students. What this means is that a math lesson might have started on the board in the far left corner of the room and as teaching and learning progressed, all the problems, all the information were added to the boards moving around the room until all four walls contained the learning of the lesson. Nothing was written and erased during the lesson.

As a classroom teacher with about a million things to consider each day, how can you benefit from the results of these international assessments? Consider these big questions:

  • How much are the differences in mathematics and science curriculum and teaching due to culture and nation and how much are they really just related to individual teacher and student differences?
  • What is the role of the teacher in the classroom, and how do teachers learn to do what they do?
  • How is teacher quality reflected in the data?
  • How do differences in educational practice among countries affect students? Time in school, number of topics covered, specific teaching strategies, etc.?
  • How often do you “leave the learning on the wall” during a lesson?

And then consider what Yong Zhao said in Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, “The traditional strengths of American education – respect for individual talents and differences, a broad curriculum oriented to educating the whole child, and a decentralized system that embraces diversity – should be further expanded, not abandoned.” How does your classroom reflect invitations for students to build individual talents while respecting diversity? What inferences are you making about your students with data you have access to?


What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance? Carnoy & Rothstein, 2013 –

Yong Zhao said in Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization

James Stigler and James Herbert share this study in The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World’s Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom


Kathy Dyer