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International Test Show Low Marks for U.S. Students; Highlight Growth in ‘Resilient’ Students

The United States ranks first globally for defense spending, third for global competitiveness, and first again in women’s Olympic figure skating gold medals. Our rankings for education; however, are much more lackluster. As shown by the recently-released 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores, U.S. students are trailing the usual suspects, such as Singapore and Taiwan, and some unusual suspects, like Poland and Estonia. The United States’ rankings are as follows:

  • Reading: 24th
  • Science: 25th
  • Math: 40th

What is PISA?

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Source: Huffington Post

PISA is a prominent measure used to gauge international student performance. More specifically, it is a computer-based assessment administered to 15-year-old students across the world every three years. In 2015, roughly 540,000 students in 72 countries or regions participated. Test takers are evaluated based on three key content areas: reading, math, and science literacy. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the intergovernmental organization that designs and coordinates with participating countries. Above simply gauging international student performance, OECD states that PISA also increases collaboration to share best practices internationally, encourages the development of low- and middle-income countries, and, ultimately, drives education improvements.

Breaking Down the 2015 Results

  • The United States had slightly lower scores than in previous years for reading and science.
  • The average PISA score for reading was 497 for 2015, one point lower than it was in 2012.
  • For science, the average was also one point lower from the last round of PISA in 2012 (497 to 496).
  • In both science and reading, the U.S. ranks above OECD’s average score.
  • However, in math, the U.S. saw a decrease of 11 points from their score in 2012, when our students ranked 25th.
Disadvantaged American youth outperform their peers across the globe
The share of American students from disadvantaged backgrounds exceeding expectations  grew by the widest margin worldwide from 2006-2015, by 12.3 points. Source: Bloomberg

Despite the dip in American students’ results on a national level, the notable improvements made by disadvantaged youth in 2015 is a bright spot. One in every three American teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds exceeded expectations in science and ranked in the top quarter of students of comparable backgrounds, according to Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective and author of The Smartest Kids in the World. In fact, Bloomberg reported that “resilient students” in the U.S., those whose socioeconomic status falls into the bottom quadrant but who outperform their peers, grew by the largest margin worldwide from 2006-2015, 12.3 points (see chart). The achievement gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds continues to decrease, challenging the assertion that disadvantaged students are destined to perform at lower levels.

While PISA is a standardized test and not the sole indicator or measure of student outcomes, the results offer important lessons with international perspective. As the Economist pointed out in their PISA analysis, the top performers have certain traits in common, including treating teachers as professionals, focusing on what happens in classrooms rather than on a school’s structure, and they have high expectations of all students – no matter which path they pursue, vocational or academic. the The results also show that more money doesn’t always mean better results. Despite the fact that the United States ranks among the top nations in per-pupil funding, we are still falling short of our cohort of developed nations. In order to ensure U.S. students remain competitive globally and are educated to their greatest potential, the U.S. must escalate efforts to ensure students of all backgrounds are given the opportunity to excel and keep up with, if not exceed, their international peers. As U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr. said, “Students in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota aren’t just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines, they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany, and Japan.”

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