If the Bellevue School District were a nation, its high-school students would rank among the top of the world’s developed nations on an influential international exam.
When the latest scores on an influential international test came out last week, policy wonks and politicians bemoaned the poor performance of U.S. students, especially in math.
But that’s not the picture in Bellevue, the one local school district that pays for a randomly selected group of its 15-year-old students to take the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, which covers reading, math and science.
The Bellevue students didn’t take the official PISA exams, but similar ones that can be used to compare their performance to peers in hundreds of other schools in the U.S. and around the world.
Nearly 40 percent of Bellevue students who took the test in 2015 scored in the top two of seven levels in math. Only 6 percent of 15-year-olds across the U.S. performed as well on the official PISA exam, slightly lower than the international average of 11 percent.
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A higher share of Bellevue students also outperformed the U.S. and international averages in reading and science, and fewer 15-year-olds in Bellevue scored in the lowest two levels compared with their peers across the nation and globe.
District officials said they are particularly pleased because Bellevue’s students are more diverse than in many of the countries that traditionally rank high on the PISA.
“A lot of countries that are highfliers are places like Finland and Singapore that are not very diverse,” said Naomi Calvo, the district’s director of research, evaluation and assessment.
“Our students are very diverse. Eighty-four different languages spoken in the district. Thirty percent of our kids don’t speak English at home,” she said.
Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) administers the PISA in more than 70 countries and regions.
Last week, the 2015 results showed that math achievement in the U.S. slipped for the second time in a row, and the country now ranks 31st among the 35 developed nations that are members of OECD.
And while the U.S. ranking in reading and science rose — with American high-school students scoring near the international average — that was only thanks to decreasing performance in other countries.
In contrast, the scores in Bellevue increased at all high schools in nearly all subjects.
“I’m pretty happy with that, but also focused on getting more out of our students,” said Calvo. “It’s really critical to prepare our students for the real world.”
Bellevue pays about $6,500 per high school to participate in theOECD Test for Schools program.
For Calvo, the scores reflect how well teachers prepare students from kindergarten through the eighth grade, since the PISA-based test is taken by 15-year-olds who might have just entered high school.
The district paused its participation in the OECD program this year, but with results from the 2014 and 2015 exams, Bellevue’s central curriculum department soon will begin developing new standards for each subject area.
Noting that she particularly wants to see performance improve in science, Calvo said the district recently launched an initiative in its elementary schools to introduce students earlier to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education.
“It used to be really important that we teach our kids content knowledge,” Calvo said. “Now, it’s much more important that we teach our students what everyone is calling 21st-century skills. How do they use information they’re finding online as opposed to just repeating content? It’s teaching them to be flexible and critical thinkers.”