What Do the 2012 PISA Scores Tell Us About U.S. Schools?

PISAchartThe 2012 results for the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released on Tuesday and the standing of U.S. students changed little since the last time the test was given in 2009. The United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading. PISA is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). More than 510,000 15-year-olds students in 65 countries and education systems took part in the 2012 test.

Students in Shanghai-China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea scored the highest in all three subjects. Switzerland and the Netherland also ranked near the top. Finland continued to perform well, although it’s standing slipped from 2009.

The fact that the United States hasn’t mustered any better than a barely average ranking has always triggered alarm among many policymakers, who see the performance as irrefutable proof that our schools are failing to prepare students for the 21sst century. Exaggerating the significance of the PISA results unfortunately feeds the agenda of proponents of market-based “reforms.”

While it’s tempting to look at top line numbers and draw dramatic conclusions, the PISA data is enormously complex and can take months to evaluate and analyze properly. Many experts caution against overreaction and urge policymakers to treat the rankings with a healthy dose of skepticism.

The PISA test can still tell us many things, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, but the results are certainly not proof that we need to accelerate voucher programs, continue ineffective high-stakes testing, and scapegoat teachers. U.S. students won’t rank higher on PISA, Van Roekel explains, until the nation properly addresses poverty and its effect on students.

“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,” says Van Roekel.

In 2012, Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute analyzed the 2009 PISA data and compared U.S. results by social class to three top performers—Canada, Finland and South Korea. They found that the relatively low ranking of U.S. students could be attributed in no small part to a disproportionate number of students from high-poverty schools among the test-takers. After adjusting the U.S. score to take into account social class composition and possible sampling flaws, Carnoy and Rothstein estimated that the United States placed fourth in reading and 10th in math – up from 14th and 25th in the PISA ranking, respectively.

Rothstein and Carnoy obviously haven’t had the time to conduct a similar audit of the new data and urged stakeholders on Monday to ignore the hype surrounding the results, calling it a “hyperventilated exercise.”

Still, even without digging deep into the numbers, according to Van Roekel, there are other lessons we can draw from those nations who consistently score high on the test.

“What else do the high-performing nations do differently? They invest in early childhood education. They fully fund all of their schools.  They make the teaching profession attractive and they support their teachers. They value the collaboration between parents, educators, administrators, communities and elected officials.”

Furthermore, top-ranked nations countries have instructional systems driven by strong standards that foster key skills such as critical thinking. If the implementation is successful, Van Roekel believes the Common Core State Standards will be a step in the right direction for U.S. students.

“The standards establish the same bar for all students, no matter their parents’ income or geography. If properly implemented and resourced, they will help to ensure that all students graduate high school ready for college, the work force, and citizenship,” he explains.

NEA recently released the Great Public Schools (GPS) Indicators Framework, which is designed to give policymakers, educators, and advocates a framework to evaluate how well states and districts address areas critical to the success of public schools. The framework focuses on critical factors including School Readiness, Standards and Curriculum, and School Funding.

“Changes need to be made to improve the quality of education our children are receiving,” Van Roekel says. “Using some of the GPS indicators to compare our system to that of the high-performing countries will point in the direction in which we need to head to move our students onto the path of success and the United States to the top of lists like the PISA Rankings. Let’s move forward and make those changes to better serve our students today and tomorrow.”

See Also:

Where Do the Smartest Kids in the World Go to School?

How Do High-Performing Nations Evaluate Teachers?

  • The PISA test results continue to generate debate – is it “a Sputnik” moment or are international comparisons invalid? What’s the critical element – culture, parents, teachers, better instruction?

    Readers might enjoy answering one of PISA questions from an earlier test. It offers insights into the demands of higher order thinking. Do American students learn how to sequence (higher order thinking) or simply memorize sequences provide by the teacher?

    See my post for the question, answers, and PISA data – “Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students” http://bit.ly/tPE1YE

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  • YAH

    Race is the key here. Look at the 2009 data:


    Asian Americans scored better than any other Asian country except for Shanghai, White Americans scored better than any other European country except for Finland. It’s the race issue that needs to be discussed, not this stuff about teacher’s unions or charters or whatever.

  • Antonio

    If poverty is what is driving poor results in the US, how do you explain how nations with higher rates of poverty are scoring higher than the US?

    The elephant in the room that nobody wants to point towards is illegal immigration. No other nation in the world is being overwhelmed by illegal immigrants like the US. Add in the fact that these illegals are not only poorly educated but they also do not speak the language. That is the source of the problem. Not poverty.

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  • Perri Sams

    I totally agree with the article. We in the US do more for ALL students than any other nation.

  • Perri Sams

    One more thing: In other nations, poverty stricken kids often do not attend school. I lived out of the country for 10 years and though there was “free” education, there were uniforms to be bought and as well as supplies. In some cases, there were school fees.
    Because of this, poverty level children simply were not educated.

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  • The Pisa scores are like every other statistical analysis. One can use it to support any position. Opponents use it to denigrate the public school system while the NEA uses it to push their agenda. Having lived overseas I can tell you that neither position is valid. The US does poorly because we try to educate every child to attend college and this is an unrealistic expectation. On the other hand most foreign countries do not unabashedly support early childhood education nor cooperation between parents teacher etc. In most other countries the standard is set and if you fail to make the grade you are shunted of into some otherprogram. Ideally the optimum solution lies somewhere in the middle.

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  • Carl Newman
    • Amy Goodman

      That article has a lot of fluff and is misleading by failing to include the full picture of progress in Finnish ed. System. Also, that those Asian countries above Finland also have extremely high student suicide rates. Finland may have dropped to 12 but the US is ranked 37… the public school system in the US is antiquated and fails to prepare students for real life. The vigorous testing and standards are not effective in raising the bar in education to produce highly effective and successful adults.

    • Amy Goodman