U.S. scores stagnant, other nations pass us by in latest international test

December 3, 2013

United States 15-year-olds have continued to tread water while youths in a number of nations have glided past them in the latest results of PISA, an international test in math, science and reading given in 65 nations.

The scores led to a predictable finger-pointing from advocates and detractors of current education reforms.

In math, the United States scored below 29 nations and education systems in 2012 on the Program for International Student Assessment – dropping from 23rd in 2009, when the test was given last; the latest average score posted by the U.S. was higher than 26 nations and not measurably different than 9. Poland, Vietnam, Austria, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Latvia and Luxembourg passed the United States for the first time.

The U.S. score of 497, on a scale of 1,000, in science, was about average for the 65 PISA nations but measurably behind 26 nations. Note that scores of Massachusetts and Connecticut (see lower right) were significantly higher than average.

In science, the United States lagged behind 22 nations – falling from 18th in 2009; scores were higher than 29 nations and about the same as 13.

And in reading, its best area, the United States was behind 19 nations – a fall from 9th in 2009; it was above 34, and about the same as 11.

Compared with the 34 industrialized nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which administered the test, American teens were below average in math and about average in reading and science. U.S. scores on PISA have stagnated over the past decade in all three areas. Russia, which had been behind the United States, has caught up, while Vietnam, Germany and Poland are among nations that have made significant progress.

Three states – Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida – paid to have their scores broken out. Had Massachusetts, the highest-performing U.S. state on the National Assessment of Educational Progress ­– been a nation, it would have been among the highest achievers in PISA in reading. It scored ahead of the average scores of the industrialized nations in all three subjects; Florida scored about the U.S. average. Connecticut was not far behind Massachusetts in reading.

Shanghai students led the world in all three subjects, followed by Hong Kong. Japan, Singapore and Korea were also top fliers. Education experts have pointed out that Shanghai’s students are not representative of China; Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, asserted that it has “systems in place to make sure that students who may perform poorly are not allowed into public schools.” Other provinces in China also administered the test, but the results weren’t reported.

PISA reported scores in six levels of proficiency, with level 1 being the lowest, showing minimum skills, and level 6 the highest. In Shanghai, 55 percent of students achieved levels 5 or 6 in math, compared with only 9 percent in the United States and 13 percent for the 34 OECD nations.

PISA broke scores down into six levels of proficiency, with level 6 the hardest to achieve. This chart shows the breakdown by percentages of students in level 2 or below (yellow) and level 5 or above (orange). Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida are in the lower right. Source: PISA.

Massachusetts had nearly one in five students at levels 5 or 6 in math; Florida had only 6 percent. In reading literacy, 16 percent of Massachusetts students were at levels 5 and 6 – twice the U.S. and OECD average. Shanghai topped the chart with 25 percent.

The PISA was given to 510,000 randomly selected students across the world, including 6,100 in the United States; it is administered every three years.

Even before the results were released on Tuesday, recriminations and criticisms began.

Richard Rothstein, a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute, and Stanford University education professor Martin Carnoy, both critics of international comparisons, wrote that more poor students in the United States take the exam than in other nations, skewing the results, and that “threats to the nation’s future prosperity come much less from flaws in our education system” than from the nation’s failure to deal with unemployment, poverty and inequality.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, in a statement, said that the PISA scores proved that “a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top — focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools — has failed to improve the quality of American public education.”

But Eric Hanushek, a research fellow with the Hoover Institution at Stanford, called for doubling down on what Weingarten excoriated. “What the PISA results show is the dire need to entertain more radical changes in our stagnant schools: more choice, more performance pay, and more local decision-making. Each of these will help America’s kids, however, only if there is also a good system of standardized testing that identifies failing schools and holds them accountable,” he said in a statement.

Noting that Vietnam made significant strides even though 79 percent of children live in poverty, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday that “our diversity fails to explain why U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing nations.”

While stating that the United States must continue to learn from the best practices of high-performing nations, Duncan praised the adoption of Common Core standards, along with teacher and principal recruitment and development requirements in the Race to the Top competition, as critical to improvement. He also called for expanding preschool and redesigning high schools to promote college- and career-ready skills.

John Fensterwald covers state education policy. Contact him and follow him on Twitter @jfenster. Sign up here for a no-cost online subscription to EdSource Today for reports from the largest education reporting team in California.

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