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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."

The numbers are in from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and for American students, as United States Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it, "It is a picture 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 Development (OECD) coordinates the development and administration of PISA worldwide. In the United States the assessments are run by ED's National Center for Education Statistics (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
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 Excellent Education, 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 Education Association, 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 Superintendents Association. "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 many neighborhoods."

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."

Extra Credit
Aditional Information

PISA key findings for the United States

PISA international results

Sample PISA assessment questions

The list of PISA participants

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.