U.S. middle-class students beaten on international test

April 3, 2013

Middle-class students are lagging far behind their peers in other countries, adding a new perspective to beliefs that low-income students are most in need of better educational opportunities, according to a new study.

America Achieves, a nonprofit aimed at improving education and career opportunities for students, reviewed the 2009 science and math results on the Program for International Student Assessment, known as the PISA exam.  Analysts divided students into four socio-economic levels and found that U.S. students in the second highest quarter were outperformed by students in similar income levels in 15 other countries in science and 24 countries in math.

Both middle- and low-income U.S. students are outperformed by dozens of other nations on the PISA exam. Source: America Achieves. (Click to enlarge).

“Many assume that poverty in America is pulling down the overall U.S. scores, but when you divide each nation into socio-economic quarters, you can see that even America’s middle class students are falling behind not only students of comparable advantage but also more disadvantaged students in several other countries,” according to the report titled “Middle Class or Middle of the Pack?”

Top performing countries, and regions of countries, include Shanghai, China; Taipei; Singapore; Hong Kong; Korea; and Finland. In math, the United States also falls behind Estonia, Slovenia, Iceland and the Czech Republic.

Analysts also found some hopeful news, however, from results of a pilot test by the same organization that developed PISA. Of the 105 U.S. high schools that participated in the pilot, some were nearly on par with the top performing nations, even when they had significant percentages of low-income students.

These weren’t anomalies; these schools have very clear expectations and values, according to America Achieves. They hire strong and knowledgeable teachers, use data, classroom observations and mentoring to continually improve teaching and stress accountability.

“Like their counterparts in many high-performing countries, high-performing schools in the U.S. are data-driven and transparent not only around learning outcomes but also around soft skills like completing work on time, resilience, perseverance and punctuality. The use of data to measure student improvement and teacher performance is often embedded in the school culture,” according to the report.

America Achieves cites Common Core standards as a move in the right direction, but adds that the U.S. needs “a deeper cultural shift” toward improving education for all students regardless of their background and must include parents, business and communities in preparing students to be critical thinkers.

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