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U.S. Producing Fewer Top-Performing Students than Many International Peers, Says New Alliance Report Based on Latest PISA Data

Press Release:

U.S. Producing Fewer Top-Performing Students than Many International Peers, Says New Alliance Report Based on Latest PISA Data

Report Says Progress on New Standards, Assessments, and Teacher Development Programs Could Result in Significant Improvement in PISA Scores in 2015

WASHINGTON, DC – Based on data released today from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a new report from the Alliance for Excellent Education reveals that the United States struggles to produce top performers in reading, math, and science at the rates of its international peers. These students, who the report calls the “deepest learners,” demonstrate the deep understanding of content and the ability to apply knowledge to solve problems, think critically, and communicate effectively.

“The term ‘deeper learning’ may be new, but its basic concepts are not,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia. “Deeper learning is what highly effective educators have always provided: the delivery of rich core content to students in innovative ways that allow them to learn and then apply what they have learned. These deeper learning skills are what PISA assesses, and they are the skills most in demand in today’s global economy; unfortunately, they are also the skills that far too many U.S. students lack.”

According to the report, The Deepest Learners: What PISA Can Reveal About the Learning that Matters, the United States lagged behind familiar names, including Shanghai-China, Finland, and Canada, in producing students who scored at PISA’s highest levels (Levels 5 and 6). In the United States, only 12 percent of students reached the highest levels in at least one subject while 4.7 percent did so in all three subjects. Compare those results to Shanghai-China, where 56 percent of students were top performers in at least one subject and 19.6 percent were in all three, and Canada, where the percentages were 21.9 percent and 6.5 percent, respectively. The international average was 16.2 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively.

The proportion of top performers in the United States has declined over time in reading and math, the report shows. “Most disturbing,” Wise noted, “is that a gap is growing between our nation’s current economic strength and the future human capital with the deeper learning skills needed to sustain and strengthen U.S. growth.”

By combining existing research with the latest PISA data, The Deepest Learners offers four recommendations based on practices in high-performing countries that can inform policymakers as states move forward to implement college- and career-ready standards.

Fortunately the first two recommendations, which focus on standards containing deeper learning competencies and assessments aligned with them, are already underway with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) by forty-six states and the District of Columbia and the development of high-quality assessments to measure student performance against the CCSS by the two state consortia—Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

The report cautions that development and adoption are only the first two steps and that implementation and resources will be keys to the standards’ success. It recommends that states and higher education institutions revamp teacher preparation programs and professional development programs to ensure that teachers are prepared to enable students to develop deeper learning competencies.

“Of all the daunting challenges the nation faces—economic, social, environmental, and educational—perhaps the most vexing is whether schools are preparing all children to apply what they’re learning to the critical decisions that power our economy and democracy,” said Barbara Chow, program director for education at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. “Incorporating the latest PISA results, this report demonstrates how high-performing nations are implementing deeper learning to prepare their students for a complex future.”

The report also recommends that the federal government support deeper learning through legislation and competitive grants and that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act should make clear that the goal of the law is to enable all students to graduate from high school ready for college and a career and that this goal requires the development of deeper learning competencies.

“By implementing new standards, assessments, and teacher development programs, the United States is taking important steps to produce significant changes in classroom practice and student outcomes over the next few years. These changes could, in turn, result in significant improvement in PISA scores in 2015,” said Wise. “More importantly, improvement in PISA performance would also signal that more students in the United States have developed the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in an increasingly complex world.”

Findings from The Deepest Learners were discussed during PISA Day on December 3, which was hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education and nine national education organizations and featured participation by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Angel Gurria, Secretary General of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD); and Andreas Schleicher, OECD Deputy Director for Education and Skills and Special Advisor on Education Policy. Archived video from the December 3 event is available at

At 5:00 a.m. (EST), a copy of the report will be available for download at


The Alliance for Excellent Education is a Washington, DC–based national policy and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.

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