U.S. High-School Students Slip in Global Rankings

U.S. 15-year-olds made no progress on recent international achievement exams and fell further in the rankings, reviving a debate about America’s ability to compete in a global economy.

The results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which are being released on Tuesday, show that teenagers in the U.S. slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which gathers and analyzes the data in the U.S.

The PISA is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. A representative sample of about 510,000 students took the exam in 65 countries and locales, representing 80% of the world economy.

U.S. scores have been basically flat since the exams were first given in the early 2000s. They hover at the average for countries in the OECD except in math, where American students are behind the curve. Meanwhile, some areas—Poland and Ireland, for example—improved and moved ahead of the U.S., while the Chinese city of Shanghai, Singapore and Japan posted significantly higher scores.

The stagnant U.S. results are certain to spark more hand-wringing by politicians, business leaders and policy makers concerned that American students are not keeping pace with counterparts in other countries.

They are also likely to fuel the debate over which policy fixes could be instituted to boost results. Many U.S. schools already have undergone decades of policy overhauls, including grading teachers on student test scores, expanding school-choice options and instituting more rigorous math and reading standards.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a “picture of educational stagnation” and said it was at “odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive work force in the world.”

But Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said the data show the U.S. has been going down the “wrong path,” and said high-scoring countries don’t use student test scores to pay and fire teachers or to rate and punish schools. “There is a road map out there,” he said. “But we are not following it.”

In the U.S., about 6,000 randomly selected students from 161 public and private schools participated. For the first time this year, Florida, Connecticut and Massachusetts tested enough students to get state-level data. The two Northeastern states equaled or bettered the OECD averages on all exams, while Florida fell below in math and science. Other areas that aren’t countries, such as Shanghai, tested enough students to have individual rankings.

Unlike many other standardized exams that assess students’ knowledge, PISA measures whether students can apply that knowledge to real-life problems.

The exams are scored on a 0-to-1,000 point scale. U.S. teenagers scored 497 in science and 498 in reading, tying the OECD averages. They scored 481 in math, below the OECD average of 494. The U.S. positions in the international rankings include numerous statistical ties.

Experts caution against reading too much into the rankings without a deeper understanding of the differences in socioeconomic and racial composition among countries. The U.S., for example, has more children living in poverty than do many other industrialized countries, and 15% of the variance in test scores can be explained by socioeconomic status, according to the OECD analysis.

The analysis found a strong correlation between higher test scores and students’ school attendance and punctuality. But it found a low connection between class size and test scores.

Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who has studied PISA results, said policy makers often draw “oversimplified conclusions” from international tests. “These results don’t tell anything about the quality of teaching or the quality of the curriculum in countries,” he said.

For the last few years, many U.S. educators and policy makers have looked to Finland, noting its high test scores and laser-like focus on attracting and retaining the best teachers. Although Finland still posts high scores, they have slid in the past few years.

Poland, on the other hand, has seen sharp improvement. The only European country to have avoided the recession, Poland undertook a host of education overhauls in 1999, including delaying by one year the system that places students into academic or vocational tracks, and crafting better systems to identify struggling students and get them help.

“Poland launched a massive set of reforms and, while we cannot say for sure they caused the improvement, they certainly are…a sort of plausible explanation,” said Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills at the OECD.

In Massachusetts, educators and policy makers credit the good showing, in part, to a 1993 effort that boosted spending and ushered in rigorous standards and achievement tests that students have to pass to graduate.

Andrew Vega, an eighth-grade teacher at Orchard Gardens K-8 Pilot School in Boston, said that when he moved from California, he “was completely blown away by what we ask students to do.” He said the state exams are so rigorous “the teaching quality also has to be higher-quality.” He said he focuses on teaching students how to think critically.

“My job is: No matter where you go, you’re going to do well.”

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