Released December 7, the results of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that American fifteen-year-olds ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics among the thirty-four countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD).1 These results, which are outlined in Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States, place the United States near the OECD average in reading and science but below the OECD average in mathematics.
Since the last PISA exam in 2006, the United States has seen significant performance gains in science, but its average scores in reading and mathematics have improved only slightly. Even with these gains, American fifteen-year-olds still finished far below their counterparts in top-performing countries such as Shanghai–China, Korea, Finland, and Canada, as shown in the graph below.
Although the United States, unlike other federated nations, does not measure the performance of individual states on PISA, it is still possible to compare the performance of groups of states. For example, public schools in the Northeast scored 510 on average in reading, compared to 500 in the Midwest, and 483 in the South; the international average in reading is 493.
Since the 2006 PISA results, the United States has pursued significant educational reforms, including Race to the Top, which places a greater focus on teacher quality and data. Most notable is the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative, which defines the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics to be prepared for college and careers. The common core state standards build upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards and are informed by top-performing countries, solid evidence, and research. Currently, 43 states and the District of Columbia, representing 85 percent of the U.S. student population, have moved to adopt them.
However, the United States has much ground to make up among its international peers at all levels of student performance. For example, 10 percent of students in the United States reached the highest levels (Levels 5 and 6) in reading—higher than the international average of 8 percent), but lower than higher-performing nations such as Shanghai–China, New Zealand, Singapore, Finland, and Japan, where 19.5 to 13.4 percent of students are considered high-performers. In math, the United States, at 10 percent, has fewer students at Levels 5 or 6 than the OECD average of 13 percent and is significantly behind Shanghai–China where 50 percent of students reached Level 5, and Singapore and Hong Kong, where 30 percent of students reached this level. In science, 9 percent of U.S. students reached Levels 5 or 6, which corresponds to the OECD average, but still trails Shanghai–China (24.3 percent), Singapore (19.9 percent), Finland (18.7 percent), and several others, including Canada (12.1 percent).
At the other end of the spectrum, the 2009 results show that 18 percent of fifteen-year-olds in the United States did not reach Level 2, the PISA baseline of reading proficiency at which students begin to demonstrate the reading competencies that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life. This percentage is close to the OECD average, but it is higher than those in high-performing nations such as Shanghai–China, Hong Kong–China, Canada, Finland, and Korea, where 10 percent or fewer of students failed to reach this level. The Level 2 threshold is significant because the OECD has determined that students scoring below Level 2 face a disproportionately higher risk of poor postsecondary participation or low labor market outcomes at ages nineteen and twenty-one.
In mathematics, 23.4 percent of U.S. students failed to reach Level 2, compared to the OECD average of 20.8. In science, 18.1 percent of American fifteen-year-olds scored below Level 2, which is close to the OECD average, and a significant improvement over the 24.4 percent who failed to reach Level 2 in 2006.
The report examines students at these lowest levels in more detail and finds that socioeconomic disadvantage has a “particularly strong” impact on student performance in the United States. In fact, 17 percent of the variation in student performance in the United States is explained by students’ socioeconomic background, compared to only 9 percent in Canada or Japan. Put another way, “Socioeconomic disadvantage translates more directly into poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries,” the report reads. It also notes that some countries succeed, “even under difficult conditions,” to moderate the impact of socioeconomic background on educational success.”
At the same time, however, the relationship between socioeconomic background and learning outcomes in the United States is far from “deterministic,” the report notes. For example, some of the most socioeconomically disadvantaged schools match the performance of schools in Finland. Additionally, one-quarter of American fifteen-year-olds enrolled in socioeconomically disadvantaged schools reached the average performance standards of Finland, one of the best-performing education systems.
“The fact that the lowest-income American students facing the longest learning odds are matching the average score of Finland, one of the world’s top performers, shows the importance of pushing aggressive reform efforts everywhere,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “But only having some students competing at this high level isn’t enough. For the United States to remain the world’s strongest economy, it needs the brainpower of all students.”
The report examines four aspects of socioeconomic background—community size, family composition, immigrant students, and concentration of socioeconomic disadvantaged students in schools—and their relationship to student performance. It finds that while students in large U.S. cities (over one million inhabitants) scored an average of 485 in reading, which is below the international average of 493, students in suburban schools performed, on average, just slightly higher than the OECD average. Consequently, the report notes that “performance challenges for the United States therefore do not just relate to poor students in poor neighborhoods, but to many students in many neighborhoods.”
On the subject of immigrant students, the report notes that the United States, at 19.5 percent, has the sixth-largest proportion of students with an immigrant background. However, it also finds that the share of students with an immigrant background explains just 3 percent of the performance variation between countries. Additionally, it notes that the reading performance of students in the United States without an immigrant background—a score of 506—is only marginally higher than the performance of all students. Finally, among the countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment, Switzerland, Canada, and New Zealand have larger immigrant intakes than the United States, but scored significantly better.
“What PISA data also show is that students in the United States with an immigrant background tend to attend schools with a socioeconomically more disadvantaged background, that have a lower quality of educational resources, a more disadvantageous student/staff ratio, and greater teacher shortage as reported by school principals,” the report notes. “Such challenges are, however, not uncommon across OECD countries.”
The PISA report also examines how student performance is affected by teacher-student relationships, school governance, school choice, educational standards, assessment and accountability arrangements, and many other factors that are too numerous to cover here. To read the entire report, go here.
1 The thirty-four OECD members are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States.