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?