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American PISA Scores Drop
This global assessment measures how well 15-year-olds do when solving real-world problems in math, reading, and science. Says Ed Secretary Duncan: The results must serve as a "wake-up call."
- By Dian Schaffhauser
The numbers are in from the latest Programme for International Student
(PISA), and for American students, as United States
Department of Education
Secretary Arne Duncan put it, "It is a
of educational stagnation."
PISA is a test of reading literacy, mathematics, and science given
every three years to 15-year-olds in the United States and 64 other
countries. The international Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and
(OECD) coordinates the development and administration
PISA worldwide. In the United States the assessments are run by ED's
National Center for
(NCES). The international
testing encompasses students in both public and private schools.
Shanghai-China, and Singapore came out top in math in the PISA results,
with students in Shanghai scoring the equivalent of nearly three years
of schooling above most OECD countries. Hong Kong-China, Chinese
Taipei, Korea, Macao-China, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the
Netherlands were also in the group of top-performing countries.
In the United States, the mean score for math dropped in the PISA 2012
results to 481 from 487 in the 2009 results. Reading dropped to 498
from 500. And science dropped to 497 from 502. That puts this country
below average compared to other participating countries in math and
about average in reading and science. The American ranking fell from
24th to 29th in math, from 19th to 22nd in science, and from 10th to
20th in reading.
"The brutal truth, that urgent reality," Duncan added, "must serve as a
wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations. The
problem is not that our 15-year-olds are performing worse today than
before. The problem is that they're simply not making progress.
Students in many other nations are advancing instead of standing still.
In a knowledge-based global economy where education is more important
than ever before, both to individual success and collective prosperity,
our students are basically losing ground. We're running in place as
other high performing countries start to lap us."
The questions on the PISA test are designed to gauge how well students
can apply their knowledge to "real-world" situations; responses take
two forms: multiple choice and "constructed response," in which the
student writes the answer to the question.
The questions on the PISA test are designed
to gauge how well students
can apply their knowledge to "real-world" situations.
As a comparison, according to the National School Boards Association
most current state assessments are designed to "measure how much
knowledge a student has acquired" in a given period. The NSBA added
that the Common Core State Standards assessments could more closely
match the PISA items by delivering questions that push students to
think critically using the concepts, topics, and procedures they've
learned in order to solve problems. Although the OECD is cautious about
making comparisons between the PISA questions and the expected Common
Core questions, the organization did see
the use of "authentic
modeling" techniques within high-stakes assessments as a "signal that
the United States is becoming a country whose citizens make frequent
and productive use of mathematics in their work and life."
In a day-long event in Washington, D.C., hosted by the education
advocate Alliance for
, Duncan used the forum to
promote several of President Obama's current education pillars. Race to
the Top, which encourages schools and districts to innovate; the
state-led creation and adoption of the Common Core; and the "Strong
Start for America's Children Act
" program to fund preschool for
low-income families, recently introduced with bipartisan legislation.
These types of programs, he said, mirror practices of countries that
rank higher in the PISA results.
Duncan also noted that he expects skeptics to "dismiss the significance
of the PISA results," as being "dragged down" by the number of poor
minority students in the United States.
And, in fact, the National
, a teachers union,
pointed to the effect of poverty as the "main cause of our mediocre
PISA performance." "Our students from well-to-do families have
consistently done well on the PISA assessments. For students who live
in poverty, however, it's a different story. Socioeconomic factors
influence students' performance in the United States more than they do
in all but few of the other PISA countries," NEA President Dennis Van
Roekel said in a statement. "It's time for our nation to face up to
that challenge, and we must start by acknowledging that the effects of
poverty are pervasive. Children can't learn in school if they lack
nutritious food, a safe place to sleep or access to health care, and
our society must address those needs."
That opinion was bolstered by Daniel Domenech, executive director of
AASA, the School
. "The problem we find in
American education isn't that schools are 'falling behind,' it is that
schools are 'pulling apart.' Poverty in America is the real issue
behind today's education gap, and it means students can experience
different education trajectories because of where they live," he said
in a statement.
While acknowledging the existence of what he called the "opportunity
gap," Duncan pointed out that it doesn't entirely explain why white
15-year-olds in this country aren't among the world's top performing
students. "America's white students lag behind the average student in
countries such as Estonia, Poland, Canada, Netherlands, and Vietnam,"
he said. "While our [national] poverty rate is about 22 percent, in
Vietnam it's about 79 percent... The real educational challenge is not
just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods. It's about many kids in
In a panel during the Alliance for Excellent Education event, four
student participants, who each have had experience in both U.S. schools
and schools in other countries, pushed for American teachers and
parents to maintain higher standards for their children. "The bar of
standard [here] is very low compared to that of Korea," said student
Jenny Jung. She recalled being surprised when she was taking an algebra
class at her New Jersey high school, and the teacher helped a student
step-by-step get an answer to one of the questions. "In Korea, that
would be unimaginable."
The students also suggested longer school days. Jung noted that classes
in Korea run from eight in the morning until 10 at night, whereas her
American classes go from 7:30 to about 2 p.m. "That's a bit short," she
said. "I've heard from my band director that we start classes earlier
and end earlier because of sports. So, sports shouldn't really come
first in the school because you go to school to learn, right? And I
guess there should be a nice middle ground between those two."
OECD shared several features of the best education systems in its
multiple reports. Among the findings: Top-performing countries,
primarily those in Asia, place great emphasis on selecting and training
teachers, encourage them to work together and prioritize investment in
teacher quality. They also set clear targets and give teachers autonomy
in the classroom to achieve them.
Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at email@example.com.