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Chicago Students Help Pilot International Math and Problem-Solving Tests


Curriculum Center

This week, Chicago teachers took notes from a group of their best and brightest students, who participated in the World Class Tests trials. The overall goal of World Class Tests is to establish an international database of standards for mathematical achievement and problem solving. Included: What else do the developers of World Class Tests hope to achieve?

About 300 mathematically gifted Chicago area students, aged nine and 13, took part in an international project this week. They were the first U.S. students to take World Class Tests, designed by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). The overall goal of the United Kingdom-based QCA is improving student mathematics skills and problem-solving abilities worldwide.

Students who participated in the pilot tests are from the suburban Chicago school districts that also belong to the First in the World Consortium. The consortium's goal is that its students be first in the world in math and science achievement. Students from those districts participated in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). TIMSS is considered one of the most comprehensive, rigorous international assessments of student achievement in science and math. The Chicago students' scores were impressive compared with student scores in 41 of the highest-achieving countries in the world.

The goals of the World Class Tests are similar to the consortium's initial ambition to improve student learning and the quality of classroom teaching. The United Kingdom began the World Class Tests project about 18 months ago. It is part of the gifted and talented component of that nation's Excellence in Cities initiative. The scores of the top 10 percent of student achievers in mathematics and problem solving will help educators set international benchmarks for those areas. Initially, the tests will be administered in English-speaking nations.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley and David Blunkett, the secretary of state for education and employment in the United Kingdom, arranged for the Chicago consortium's participation in the World Class Tests last fall.

Paul L. Kimmelman, recently retired superintendent of Chicago's West Northfield School District No. 31 and former president of the First in the World Consortium, hosted the three-day trials. He said the students participating in the test trials appeared to enjoy taking the tests, which are administered on computers and include graphics.

The tests are not multiple-choice and were designed to encourage deeper thinking about topics that children cover in normal lessons. When possible, the students are presented with real problems to tackle.

"The students are very motivated to take the tests," said Jeremy Tafler, project leader for the QCA World Wide Tests. "The kids say it is much easier on the computer. These [problems] are quite rich and demanding, however. The students have problems to solve, and they have to take some time to work on them."

Tafler, who administered the tests in Chicago, said the goals of the project are many. In addition to offering educators an international database to determine what constitutes world-class standards in mathematical achievement and problem solving, it will also help schools identify gifted students. There are few assessment resources available in this area in any country, according to QCA.

Other goals of the World Class Tests include the following:

  • Establish expectations of what the most-able children from around the world can achieve by the key ages of nine and 13.
  • Enable schools to measure the achievements of their students against students from around the world.
  • Provide a method to share teaching and learning resources across national boundaries.

"Our goals are broader than telling really bright kids that they are doing well, which has to be done," Tafler told Education World. "This is not an acceleration program."

The overall goal of the tests is to benefit all students, not just the mathematically gifted. Teachers will learn how the best math students solve problems they've never seen. All students in the classroom can then learn those strategies, Tafler said.

Currently, Tafler is collecting feedback about the tests from the Chicago students -- the first group of students outside the UK to take the tests -- and their teachers. About 10,000 students in the UK have taken the test.

Readers can contact Tafler by e-mail at taflerj.