Wisconsin High School Reaches High International Benchmarks in Math and Reading

Alan J. Borsuk, alan.borsuk@marquette.edu, (414) 288-4081, Marquette University Law School
Amanda Olberg, Amanda_olberg@hks.harvard.edu, (617) 496-2064, Education Next Communications Office

Wisconsin High School Reaches High International Benchmarks in Math and Reading

Participating in international testing motivates both educators and students

One Wisconsin high school is celebrating its results on an internationally benchmarked test. Fifteen-year-olds in the Kettle Moraine School District on the western edge of the Milwaukee metropolitan area achieved reading scores in 2015 that ranked among those of the top seven countries that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). A year previously the school had performed below the average in reading for the 32 OECD countries.

OECD administers the Program for International Assessment (PISA) test to samples of 15-year-olds in all OECD countries and in many countries in the developing world as well. Since 2012, a similar test has been administered each year in individual schools, including about 100 schools in the United States. The exam, which takes around 3 and a half hours, asks students to apply reading, math and science skills to real-life situations and respond to questions about themselves and their schools. The nonprofit organization America Achieves coordinates the exams for schools in the U.S.

Schools that participate say they are curious to see how their students compare to students from other countries, especially if the school is considered high performing; a few participated to demonstrate that low-income minority students could perform as well or better than students nationally or internationally. In a new article for Education Next, author Alan Borsuk explores Kettle Moraine’s experience of participating in the PISA-based test, known in the U.S. as the OECD Test for Schools.

In recent years, the percentage of Kettle Moraine students deemed proficient or advanced in reading or math has been 5 to 25 points above the state average on Wisconsin’s state standardized tests. In 2014, more than 96 percent graduated from high school in four years, and 75 percent enrolled in post-secondary education. So it was a challenge to convince some teachers, parents, and others of the need to improve. But in 2013, the district, with the financial help of a local foundation (Kern Family Foundation), agreed to let the school take part in the test in 2014.

When the results were in, Kettle Moraine High looked good, but not that good, compared to global high performers. While 10 percent of students placed in the top levels in math, the large majorities—83 percent in reading, 81 percent in math, and 100 percent in science—ranked in the middle groups. So Kettle Moraine educators met before the beginning of the 2014‒15 school year to review the previous year’s test data and students’ answers to school climate questions posed by the test. One change made was to revise the school’s approach to “advisory” periods, where 12 to 15 students meet with a teacher. The goal was to foster better dialogue between teachers and students around perceptions of how the students were being taught.

Kettle Moraine participated in the OECD Test for Schools a second time in February 2015, and the school’s reading scores improved noticeably (see figure below). Science scores also rose while scores in math remained at their previous high level.

According to Patricia Deklotz, the district superintendent, the OECD Test for Schools and the school district’s implementation of the Common Core standards are compatible. “The shared value [of these efforts] would be increased expectation for student performance, especially over previous state assessments,” she said. The OECD results “raise a lot of great questions.”


Wisconsin High Schools Learn from New PISA Test: International comparison drives efforts to improve” by Alan J. Borsuk will be released on Thursday, June 25 at 12:01AM and will appear in the Fall 2015 issue of Education Next.

About the Author

Alan J. Borsuk is senior fellow at Marquette University Law School. A longtime education reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he continues to write a Sunday column for the paper.

About Education Next

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to careful examination of evidence relating to school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard University, part of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. For more information about Education Next, please visit: https://www.educationnext.org.

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