PISA: U.S. is mediocre in reading, math, science

Compared to other developed countries, U.S. 15-year-olds are average in reading and science literacy and below average in math, according to study released today by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is coordinated by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

PISA tries to measure the reading, math and scientific literacy skills and knowledge “essential for full participation in society.”

In reading, Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia posted the highest scores with the U.S. in the middle, tied with  Iceland and Poland. The U.S. had average percentages of students scoring below level 2 (can’t find the main idea) and above level 4 (capable of critically evaluating a text) compared to other OECD countries.

In math, the U.S. was below average, on a par with Ireland and Portugal, but well below Korea, Finland and Switzerland. Top-scoring countries — and cities — included Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland and Switzerland.  The U.S. was similar to the OECD average in low-scoring students but had only 27 percent of students scored at or above level 4 compared to the 32 percent for the OECD average.

In science literacy, the U.S. matched the OECD average for both low-scoring and high-scoring students.  The usual suspects — Asian countries plus Finland and New Zealand– topped the charts.

U.S. scores for white and Asian-American students were above the OECD average, as were scores for students attending low-poverty schools.  Girls scored higher in reading but lower in math and science literacy.

Does it matter? Some argue the U.S. has more high-scoring students — because we have more people than Korea, Singapore, Finland or New Zealand — so it doesn’t matter if our students’ average performance can’t match the high flyers’ performance.

Eighteen percent of U.S. students scored poorly in reading and science and 23 percent scored poorly in math.  On the other end of the scale, 30 percent of U.S. students scored 4 or better in reading, 27 percent did well in math and 29 percent were strong in science literacy.  Can we afford to write off 18 to 23 percent of the population and rely on the top 27 to 30 percent?

The report is “an absolute wake-up call for America,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

“Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States,” a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy, looks at the education systems in top performers, such as Finland, Singapore, Japan and Canada, and fast improvers, such as China and Poland.

Though there are many differences between Finland and Singapore, for example, NCEE president Marc Tucker pointed to commonalities, including “clear, rigorous standards for what students should know” closely tied to a curriculum aligned with “high-quality assessments that measure complex, higher-order thinking.”  Students don’t move on till they demonstrate they’ve mastered the curriculum.

The top performing systems ensure that they get high quality teachers by aggressively raising the standards to get into pre-service teacher education programs, concentrating teacher education in major universities, raising teacher pay (U.S. teachers’ pay is very low compared to the top performing countries), providing prospective teachers with the skills they need to diagnose student problems early on and prescribing the appropriate remedies, raising the standards to enter the teaching force, providing new recruits with master teachers who can mentor them, and creating career ladders for master teachers that will enable them to earn at high levels and stay in teaching.

“While many Americans believe that other countries get better results because those countries educate only a few, while the United States educates everyone, that turns out not to be true,” NCEE concludes. Compared to the U.S., most top-performing countries do a better job of educating students from low-income families.

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