Stuck in the Middle in International Testing

The latest international testing shows U.S. scores in the middle of the pack and stagnating. According to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), nine percent of 15-year-old U.S. students scored at proficiency level 5 or above, on a scale of one to six, in math literacy. Compare that with 55 percent of students in Shanghai-China scoring at level 5 or above.

The average U.S. math score was 481, compared with 613 for Shanghai and the international average of 494. The U.S. math average is virtually unchanged from 2003, 2006 and 2009.

The PISA tests are administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a coalition of many of the most advanced but also some emerging economies. More than half a million students from 65 educational systems around the world took the exam in math, science and reading last year. East Asian educational systems performed best overall, taking seven of the top 10 spots across all three subjects. The U.S. ranked 17th in reading, but failed to finish in the top 20 in math and science.

In science, the U.S. average score was 497, not measurably different from the OECD average score and about the same as the U.S. average scores in 2006 and 2009. Seven percent of 15-year-olds scored at or above level 5, about the same as the OECD average. But the U.S. lags far behind Shanghai-China at 27 percent and Singapore at 23 percent.

Reading literacy scores were also close to average. Eight percent of U.S. 15-year-olds scored at proficiency level 5 or above, equal to the OECD average. The average U.S. score was 498, about the same as the OECD average and not measurably different from U.S. averages in 2000, 2003 and 2009. Students from Shanghai-China scored an average 570.

Bar graph comparing U.S. Pisa scores with Shanghi-China, Singapore and the OECD average.

The overall results prompted U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan to say, “We’re seeing a picture of educational stagnation.”

How can we close the gap? The OECD suggests more rigorous standards could help:

Education standards have influenced OECD education systems in various ways. They have helped to establish rigorous, focused and coherent content at all grade levels. They have also reduced overlaps in curricula across grades and reduced the variation in the way curricula are implemented across classrooms. Standards facilitate the co-ordination of policy drivers ranging from curricula to teacher training and reduce inequity in curricula across socio-economic groups. The United States has suffered from wide discrepancies between state standards and test scores that have led to non-comparable results. … The establishment of the “Common Core Standards” in the United States could be a step towards addressing these problems.

You can read more about the OECD’s report on how the U.S. school system compares internationally:

The scores from East Asian countries and other high-scoring educational systems show how deeply their students understand the subject matter. For instance, the definition for level 6 in math states that students can conceptualize, generalize and utilize information based on the investigation and modeling of complex problem situations. Students at this level are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning.

The Missouri Learning Standards, which include the Common Core State Standards in English language arts and math, support that depth of understanding by raising expectations at each grade level and course. By teaching students across the state to reach those standards, we enhance their chances for success in college, postsecondary training and career. Stronger standards are a first step towards helping Missouri students thrive in a global economy.