Much time, energy, and money has been spent figuring out what is wrong with the education system. For example, the ACT test, which has four sections math, science, English, and reading has a maximum score of 36. In 2013 only 39 percent nationally met three or more college readiness benchmark scores. The benchmark means that the student has a 75 percent chance of earning a "C" or better in a freshman class. Another 31 percent did not meet a single benchmark. Repeat that again. One of three was not ready, in any way, for college work.
In Iowa, 22,526 students graduating in 2013 took the ACT. Of those, 32 percent met the college readiness benchmark in all four sections better than the national average, but still only one of three. Yet these are students who have been passed from first grade to second, from eighth to ninth. Every year they have been told, "Yes, you are good enough to move ahead." Many will be "passed" from twelfth grade into college. There they must spend money their parents', theirs, or taxpayers taking remedial classes, attempting to learn what they should have learned before. And many fail, earning no degree only lots of debt.
Why? How do we fix it?
Though we test our students every year, it never counts. Even if they do poorly, they are passed. Neither parents nor students take the results seriously. Many argue that the tests are biased or only measure one type of knowledge, and it's not fair. Our children will do just fine anyway.
However, students in Finland, Germany, Poland, and South Korea students without iPads, white boards, or football teams do very well on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), the worldwide benchmark test. These students are beating our children. On the 2009 PISA, focusing on the reading skills of 15-year-olds, the American students were "average" in reading with a rank of 14 out of 34 and ranked 17 in science. In mathematics we ranked 25th, well below average. For these children, the tests do count. And more importantly, both the children and the parents believe they count. They take the tests seriously and do the work required to score well.
As Amanda Ripley says in The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way, the answer is simple. We must take testing seriously and teach our children to do so. Not because we're "teaching to the test," but because doing the work required and learning the things necessary to score well builds discipline, builds commitment, and builds confidence. Our own children after being exposed to schools in other countries recognize that American schools are easier. The teachers are their "friends," they're "nice." American parents and teachers are not requiring rigor from our children.
Many students spend more time in school. They take more difficult classes. American students need to learn that they can learn, they can master a difficult subject if they work at it and study, spending the time and effort required.
Ripley notes that the students who learn are those whose parents spend as little as 15 minutes a day, every day, reading and doing math with them. Those students recognize that if their parent spends time, it is important. They are important. The parent does not have to be well-educated. The parent just has to help their child understand they must work at learning.
That is the difference. It is also something which is easy to fix. It does not take government or more money. It takes the will, by all parents no matter how busy, to teach our children to learn. The score does count, and the things one learns in order to achieve the score count even more.
Deborah D. Thornton is a research analyst for the Public Interest Institute in Mount Pleasant.