NATICK — Natick High School has long taken pride in its English, math, and science programs and had the MCAS scores to prove it, ranking in the upper tier of schools in a state with the strongest academic performance in the nation.
But in an increasingly global economy, Natick High wasn’t satisfied with comparing itself only with its neighbors. Four years ago, the school started giving a new international exam through a trial program to see how its students stack up against peers around the world.
The results proved impressive. The high school trailed only the schools in Shanghai in math, reading, and science.
Natick High is among a growing group of schools in Massachusetts and across the United States that are turning to international testing to gain a broader perspective on how well their educational programs are preparing students for college and beyond, and what they might be able to learn from high-performing schools worldwide.
Previously, results on international exams typically generated only national or statewide averages, leaving schools wondering how their own students did. But now the new program that Natick participated in is generating school-specific data that administrators can use to draw conclusions about their own programs.
The schools in Massachusetts that have been taking the international assessments or that have signed up to take the next round are a diverse group that includes Billerica Memorial High School, Malden High School, Worcester Technical High School, and Sturgis Charter Public School in Hyannis, according to America Achieves, a national education organization in New York and Washington that is overseeing a global network of schools that are using the tests.
Jon Schnur, the organization’s chairman, said the testing data enable “schools to more deeply understand how they are progressing in helping their students succeed in key 21st-century skills and, more crucially, how to make improvement in their programs to advance success for all students.”
Rose Bertucci, dean of instruction, data, and student services at Natick High, stressed that scores on recent international tests were one of many measures the school uses to evaluate its performance. But she added that the results revealed the school has some big challenges if it truly wants to rank as high as Shanghai in all three subjects.
“More than 50 percent of the kids in Shanghai still scored higher than our students,” she said.
Natick’s interest in international testing follows in the footsteps of Massachusetts policy leaders, who over the last decade have made the state one of the few nationwide to take part in the most prestigious global testing programs.
Massachusetts has been a strong performer, scoring well above the US average and near or at the top among international peers. In results released in December from the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, Massachusetts statistically tied for first in reading, came in second in science, and pulled in slightly less stellar scores in math.
The test that Natick and other schools nationwide are using is based on the PISA and was developed by the same group, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which consists of education leaders from industrialized countries.
To participate, schools need to test about 85 15-year-olds, based on a random sampling. Students and their parents have the right to opt out of the test, which has about 140 questions and lasts about two hours. The cost is $6,500 per school, but America Achieves is subsidizing the first 30 schools that sign up for this year.
Tim Piwowar, superintendent of the Billerica Public Schools, which recently signed an agreement to participate, said his school system needs to look beyond how it compares with the state average.
“For students to succeed in a global economy, we need to look more outwardly,” Piwowar said. “We don’t have the same socioeconomic advantages as other communities, but that doesn’t mean our expectations should be lower.”
Debate is emerging across the country about the wisdom of schools comparing themselves too much with those in other countries. Some researchers point out that customs and values vary among countries and can affect student achievement.
In China, for instance, students spend hours in specialized “cram schools” so they can do better on standardized tests and sit through math classes in their regular schools in a quiet and compliant way with few opportunities to participate, said Jon Star, a Harvard University education professor who specializes in math instruction.
“I’m not sure if US schools would want to teach math in that way,” Star said. “We generally value dialogue, expression, and creativity.”
But Star and other experts point out that debate over the effects of cultural norms can cut both ways. Singapore has had much success in luring the brightest students into the teaching profession, which is held in high esteem there, in contrast to the United States, where a culture of teacher-bashing persists, experts say.
“Learning from them doesn’t mean copying them,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a research and consulting group in Washington. “It means taking the best from countries getting the results you want and using what they do to create something unique in your own system.”
Martin Carnoy, a Stanford University education professor who has extensively studied international testing data, said he worries the growing popularity of the tests could devolve into an unnecessary horse race among schools to be No. 1.
He added that it is an even more pointless exercise in a state like Massachusetts, where strong test results and high academic standards are already positioning students for success.
“I find it very bizarre that schools would want to do this,” said Carnoy, who coauthored a report warning against basing educational policy on international test results.
But Natick High sees the international comparisons as a useful tool in making sure it is offering the best programs for its 1,600 students, and interest in the math and science fields runs strong in the town.
One recent afternoon in an 11th-grade biology class, three-quarters of the students raised their hands when asked whether they planned to pursue a career in the sciences. Nicole Yunes Perez, 16, said she wants to go into the environmental sciences and find ways to curb the effects of global warming.
“Even in middle school I liked the sciences,” said Yunes Perez.
Three of the students in the class took the international test and said having to take an additional test, which was voluntary, didn’t bother them.
“I knew we would rank high,” said Ian Fisher, 16, who just learned that day the school landed behind Shanghai. “But I didn’t think we would rank that high. It’s pretty cool to see how our school matches up internationally.”