U.S. student scores rise in international assessment

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Students in the United States have improved slightly in math, science and reading, according to a recent international assessment comparing student achievement across 79 countries. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, measures 15-year-olds’ ability to apply knowledge “to meet real-life challenges,” and is tallied every three years in industrialized nations. While the 2018 scores for the United States, announced Dec. 3, are up from 2015, the long-term trend from 2003 is mostly flat. The recent uptick is a change AFT President Randi Weingarten attributes to a turn away from high-stakes testing and toward students’ real needs.

PISA 2018

“We still have a long way to go,” says Weingarten. “But on the fourth anniversary of the Every Student Succeeds Act, these results are an inflection point that suggest when you try to meet students’ instructional and socio-emotional needs, and listen to educators and parents—rather than penalize them based on test scores—you can start to move the needle.”

U.S. PISA results show that U.S. reading scores increased by eight points, placing the country at around 10th in the reading rankings. Math scores increased nine points, placing the United States at around 34th, and science scores increased six points, placing the United States at around 14th. The country is above average in reading and science, and below average in math. Reading scores, which were the particular focus of the 2018 PISA, showed U.S. students scoring similarly to students in Australia, Germany, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

These comparative rankings are not reliable, however, and many education experts have questioned their validity. “We need to be cautious of the OECD’s league tables that compare apples with oranges and pit nations against each other,” says Weingarten. “Instead of ranking countries with very different educational contexts, we should focus on the underlying research that shows school systems work when teachers are well-prepared and well-supported, and when students are not just presented with standards but given the tools to meet them.”

The 1,100-page, three-volume PISA report covers everything from basic scores to gender gaps, analyses of immigrant students’ performance, comparisons of socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students, attitudes toward school, and social-emotional issues such as bullying and depression. It drills down to details such as girls expressing greater fear of failure than boys (a common trait in almost every country) and students performing better when they perceive their teachers as enthusiastic (another common indicator).

There is much here for educators—and all stakeholders in public education—to consider, including some areas that have caused some alarm. The United States scored below the OECD average in math, for example, a deeply concerning fact in a world that increasingly requires mathematical aptitude. There are also persistent achievement gaps between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged groups, a common problem in other countries as well. Reading results among disadvantaged students in the United States were 12 percentage points lower than results among peers who were advantaged—the same as the OECD average.

Some other significant PISA statistics include:

  • First-generation immigrant students in the United States scored 31 points below their non-immigrant peers, but second-generation immigrant students scored two points higher than their non-immigrant peers. Once socio-economic status and gender were accounted for, immigrant students scored 16 points higher than non-immigrant students—far ahead of the OECD average of -24 points.
  • Socio-economically advantaged students have 24.4 percent more teachers with master’s degrees than their socio-economically disadvantaged peers.
  • Girls in the United States outperformed their male peers on reading by 24 points (the OECD average was 30 points). Boys outscored girls on math by nine points (the OECD average was five points). And boys outscored girls in science by one point (the OECD average was two points).
  • The majority of U.S. students—68 percent—disagreed with the statement, “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much,” an important message for teachers who can nurture that feeling of aspiration and optimism, and use it as an opportunity for growth.

“Despite half of all U.S. students coming to school with some kind of trauma, they have great resilience and optimism,” says Weingarten, referring to that last statistic. “They overwhelmingly believe education can make a difference—and if we fail to honor that optimism and commitment to the American dream, then we have failed as policymakers.”

[Virginia Myers]