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WHERE HAVE ALL THE TOP PERFORMERS GONE?: With Common Core and Aligned Assessments, United States Taking Action to Improve Future PISA Results, Wise Writes

“The fact that so few U.S. students reached top levels—and that the number who have done so is dropping—is worrisome,” Wise writes.

While the U.S. rankings in mathematics, reading, and science on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) have drawn the most attention, Alliance President Bob Wise, writing a response for National Journal’s “Education Insiders” blog, points out another disturbing PISA trend: the declining proportion of American students who score at PISA’s top level.

Wise notes that only 8.8 percent of U.S. fifteen-year-olds performed at the top levels in mathematics, compared with 10.1 percent in 2003; 7.9 percent performed at the top levels in reading, compared with 12.2 percent in 2000; and 7.5 percent performed at top levels in science, down from 9.1 percent in 2006 (that decline is not statistically significant).

By contrast, several high-performing nations had far higher proportions of students at the top levels, and many increased the proportions scoring high over time. Shanghai-China had far and away the most, with 55.4 percent of their students scoring at top levels in mathematics, 25.1 percent in reading, and 27.2 percent in science. Singapore, Korea, Japan, Canada, and Switzerland, among other nations, all had considerably more students at the top levels than the United States. Poland’s proportion of top performers rose substantially, from 10.1 percent to 16.7 percent in mathematics and 5.9 percent to 10 percent in reading.

“The fact that so few U.S. students reached top levels—and that the number who have done so is dropping—is worrisome,” Wise writes. “These levels indicate that students can use their knowledge to think critically, solve complex and novel problems, and communicate effectively—precisely the deeper learning competencies that are essential for their future.”

Wise notes that the United States did not need many students with these abilities to keep its economy humming in the past, but that is no longer true. He cites a recent commentary on the PISA results by Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria.

“It’s possible that the top 1 percent will continue generating enough growth to keep the country moving, but it’s more likely that the weight of a stagnant middle class will eventually slow the economy,” Zakaria writes. “More important, the politics of a country with a tiny productive elite and a massive underclass with low skills, depressed wages, and no prospects will not look pretty.”

Wise points to several positive steps the United States is taking that could improve its performance in the next round of PISA exams in 2015, including implementing the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics, which have been adopted by forty-six states and the District of Columbia, and the new assessments aligned with them.

“The challenge for the United States is to implement these standards and assessments well so that all teachers are capable of teaching those abilities effectively, and all students have the support they need to learn them,” Wise writes. “Improving PISA performance, and more importantly, improving the nation’s civic and economic strength, depends on whether the nation can meet that challenge.”

Wise’s complete response is available at

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