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School officials expressed excitement over a new testing model they hope will fuel reforms in annual testing for students in Fairfax County.

Recently, 10 Fairfax County public high schools participated in an international pilot of the Programme of International Student Assessment, a program under the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. OECD headquarters are in Paris, but its membership includes 34 nations, including the U.S. where its work focuses on economic development through education.

The PISA test was first administered in 2000.

“PISA said, for countries to succeed economically, countries need to make sure they have a strong educational system,” said Superintendent Jack D. Dale, who presented the pilot program and results to the School Board last week. He said PISA traditionally has been administered on a countrywide basis, with the most recent test taking place in 2009 among 70 countries.

For the exam, sample populations of students are tested.

“This pilot was in response to demand, I think, by these countries, who said we want to drill down to individual high schools. Can you do a PISA for our high schools?” Dale said. “So they took the same 2009 test that they had data on around the world.”

Locally, the schools that participated in the pilot included: Chantilly, Falls Church, Herndon, Langley, Lee, Mount Vernon, Woodson, Oakton and Thomas Jefferson high schools and Hayfield Secondary School. These schools, Dale said, are a fair representation demographically of the county school system as a whole.

“PISA is, as far as I know, the only international assessment that covers the three areas: Math, Science and Reading,” Dale said. “Many of you on the board know about the importance of preparing our kids not for Fairfax, not for Virginia, not for greater-Washington, D.C. [region], but the world. And one of the questions we continually struggled with is how do we stack up in the world; how are we doing? This was an opportunity that was free. That was an appropriate reason to get involved.”

“Many of us believe we are overly testing our kids,” he said. “So the question is can we shift to a different model, perhaps away from over testing. This is a very different process. It’s a sampling process done periodically and then forces the adults to figure out what’s happening in their system as opposed to testing kids [each year].”

Educators whose schools were involved in the pilot touted this feature of PISA, too.

“Why did I volunteer to do this? We’re over tested, we all agree to that,” Oakton High School Principal John Banbury said. “I subjected 150 of my students to this for a reason. I know how well we do against the other students in Virginia. I know how well we do against the other students in the United States. I have no idea how we do worldwide. We constantly hear information about how our schools compare to these fabulous systems internationally. So I thought to myself, ‘let’s find out.’ We talk about it all the time but we don’t really know.”

Teachers said the results of the PISA exam matched those of the state-mandated Standards of Learning tests given annually. However, they said, PISA generated a richer, more detailed analysis of student outcomes than what SOLs currently offer.

“I think the most powerful part of this test is the fact that it’s interdisciplinary,” said Oakton teacher Colleen Eddy, head of the school’s English Department, adding that the tests are challenging and offer practical information to teachers.

“I do think our SOLs are moving in that direction… But the SOL tests do not provide, for me, feedback like this,” she said. “Typically about 1 percent of our students don’t pass the reading SOL… The other 99 percent of our students, I really only learn if they pass or if they’re pass-advanced.”

PISA is a two-hour exam testing core content areas of math, science and reading.

“This is one test assessing all core content as opposed to ‘We have a test in chemistry today and tomorrow we have a test in Algebra II and then the next day we have a test in reading and they’re all two-hour tests. This is one two-hour test, Eddy said.

“As far as over testing our students: I would say this is a solution to that problem.”

The pilot of PISA included 7,400 students, 125 schools and 48 school districts. Among the schools participating, which was voluntary and free, were six magnet, six charter and one private schools. The rest were public schools.

“When I think about that and all the information that we were able to get out of just two hours of testing, I think that shows the power [of this test],” said Terri Breeden, assistant superintendent of Professional Learning and Accountability.

School Board members focused comments on the role PISA might play in reshaping state-mandated testing cultures, which were created in response to the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

“We all know how overloaded our teachers are and how a lot of the morale issues between teachers and students have to do with this sort of test-score chase,” School Board member Pat Hynes (Hunter Mill) said. “So you could look at it as this is just one more test, but I think it’s a chance for us to look at a different model of testing.”

Fellow School Board member Ted Velkoff (At-large) said, “I’m almost starting to see a way out here… I think we may have a win-win for our children, our teachers [while making] the folks in Richmond happy as well.”

School-by-school PISA test results can be viewed at