Florida students ‘happy’ at school despite lagging PISA scores

Florida’s students lag behind most of the developed world when it comes to math and science, but at least they’re generally “happy” with the quality of their public education.

Survey results released this week along with test scores from the global Programmed for International Student Assessment, or PISA, show most of the nearly 2,000 Florida teenagers who took the test are “satisfied” with their schooling and feel they’ll be prepared for college as long as they put forth the necessary effort. On the other hand, Sunshine State students are more likely to skip school than their U.S. and international peers and nearly 30 percent say school “does little to prepare me for adult life.”

The information, released by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development on Tuesday as part of a massive data dump, is a window into how Florida’s students view their schools, teachers and themselves. Students were asked to answer myriad questions, like the number of books they have at home and whether they’re lonely at school or would try harder if they had a different teacher.

Just how much can or should be made of teenagers’ various self-assessments isn’t clear. But their answers provide little-discussed context to the test results from PISA, taken by 15-year-olds in 65 nations and economies who want to better understand how school is preparing older students for life after class.

“The answers to the surveys are very important,” said Michael Davidson, who authored the report on the U.S. results. “Students who feel happy in school and are prepared to tackle problems … who believe math is important, these are all attributes that correlate strongly with better performance.”

Among the more interesting Florida results:

•  More than one-third of students feel they’re bad at math, and about the same number said they get tense when trying to perform arithmetic.

•  Three-quarters of students said they get along with most of their teachers and four out of five said their teachers care about their well-being. More than 85 percent said their teachers treat them fairly.

•  Students were more likely to blame their failures in math on the difficulty of the material than the quality of teaching in their classrooms. They overwhelmingly said whether they perform well is “completely up to me.”

•  More than 77 percent said they’re “happy” in school, and 78 percent said they’re “satisfied” with their school.

Florida has participated in PISA before, but for the first time in 2012, it spent a half-million dollars to have its scores broken out from the rest of the United States. Connecticut and Massachusetts did so as well.

For its money, the state learned its older students on average score below their international and U.S. peers on math and science exams. And so far, most of the attention paid to PISA results has focused on those test scores.

But there has been some analysis of the survey results related to how happy students feel in the classroom, which students were asked about for the first time last year. University of Michigan professor Susan Dynastic also took note of mention by the OECD that while U.S. students didn’t perform terribly well at math, their self-confidence in their mathematical prowess was significantly higher than the international average.

“USA! USA!” Dynastic mockingly tweeted.

Davidson said there are valid reasons to be skeptical of country-by-country comparisons because students in different nations might think differently about, for instance, the definition of happiness. But he said the survey results can be useful.

For example, last year’s tests showed boys on average are better at math. But he said the surveys helped show why.

“What’s doubly interesting is this is related to student’s self confidence and anxiety, and students who feel less anxious are students who perform better,” he said.

Whether education officials in Florida or elsewhere will analyze the numbers isn’t clear. On Thursday, a Florida Department of Education spokeswoman said officials hadn’t yet received the results, even though they were readily available on the OECD website.

Education activist and Fordham University history professor Mark Nasion said there are cultural differences at schools in different countries that make comparing subjective attitudes problematic. But he said education officials should be more willing to take students’ thoughts into consideration.

“I don’t’ know if a survey is always the best way to do that,” he said. “But I’m in favor of asking students questions to get their opinions. Often their voice is never heard.”

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