In the latest round of global test results, the United States remained in the middle of the pack.
But one Houston school stood out and highlighted how the United States did the best out of all developed countries to close the achievement gap between disadvantaged kids and their more affluent peers.
The test is called the PISA and it’s administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. In 2015, it tested about half a million 15-year-olds from 72 countries.
Students at Chavez High School in Southeast Houston showed significant improvement, outperforming their peers at similar schools with high poverty.
“There’s a certain amount of pride to let them know that they belong, that they belong on the world stage,” said Principal Rene Sanchez.
Sanchez said when they first took the international test, the results weren’t great.
“For science, we were grouped mainly in the middle. For math and English, we were grouped mainly to the middle and the lower scores,” he said.
Fast forward three years to the latest results, and Chavez has improved a lot.
“We’ve been able to move math and science to above the trend line and English onto the trend line, so we’ve been able to show that growth and it’s made us extremely excited,” Sanchez said.
He’s not the only one. Jon Schnur leads America Achieves, the U.S. group that helps manage the international test.
“Chavez really has made some of the greatest strides in math and science and helps show that poverty is not destiny,” Schnur said.
The test prompted teacher Alex Kamber to give his students tougher equations in his freshmen algebra class. Then he heard some whining.
“I finally said, ‘OK, do you not want me to teach the hard things? Do you want me to only teach the easy things?'” Kamber recounted. “And there was this long silence and they eventually said, ‘No we want actually to learn the hard things. We don’t want to learn the easy things.’ And that, that’s the best thing to hear as a teacher.”
Kamber knew that in other countries like in Finland and Singapore, teenagers solved the same tough problems on the PISA.
“And if some kids can, that means our kids can,” he said.
In Southeast Houston, the campus is surrounded by science heavyweights like NASA and petrochemical companies. The majority of the 3,000 students are Hispanic and from low-income homes.
The prinicpal said that three changes led to gains. First, they doubled the amount of math for all freshmen. Then, they focused on the needs of all students. And finally, they connected subjects like math and science to the real world.
He said that some students at Chavez also performed at the very top level.
“Which means that we had students in the building that were comparable to students to Shanghai and China and Finland and all these other places in the world. Which means that we should be aware that we have to serve all kids, not just the kids in the middle,” he said.
Sanchez believes in his students so much, that they will continue to take the international exam.