U.S. Students Fall Further Behind on Global Test

Test results taken from half a million 15-year-olds across the globe once again indicate that the United States has a lot to learn about STEM education.

“American 15-year-olds are still well behind their peers in top-performing nations across the globe,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at a recent online event announcing the results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

Calling U.S. performance on the test a “picture of educational stagnation,” Duncan warned that the “brutal truth—that urgent reality—must serve as a wake-up call against educational complacency and low expectations.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has been using PISA to test the knowledge and skills of the world’s 15-year-olds every three years since 2000.

PISA, which covers reading, math and science, is designed to show how well students can extrapolate from what they have learned and apply that knowledge in new settings.

Though American performance remained basically unchanged, many participating countries and economies improved their scores in at least one area, causing U.S. students to slip in the rankings compared to 2009.

PISA is administered in 65 countries, but the U.S. is commonly bench-marked against the other 33 OECD members, most of which are developed nations with high-income economies. Compared to students of other countries in this group, American 15-year-olds are average performers in reading and science and below average in math. They rank 17th out of the 34 nations in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math (down from 14th, 17th and 25th, respectively, in 2009).

“In a knowledge-based global economy, where education is more important than ever before both to individual success and collective prosperity, our students are basically losing ground. We’re running in place as other high-performing countries start to lap us,” Duncan said.

Math—American students’ most challenging subject—received special focus on the 2012 PISA. Results show that the U.S. has a higher-than-average proportion of under-performing students, coupled with a below-average share of top performers.

Twenty-six percent of American 15-year-olds don’t reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of math proficiency, “at which level students begin to demonstrate the skills that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life.” By contrast, in China, Korea, and Singapore, 10 percent of students or fewer are poor performers in mathematics.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, only two percent of students in the U.S. reach the highest level (Level 6) of performance in mathematics, compared with a OECD average of three percent and 31 percent of students in Shanghai. Level 6 students “can develop and work with models for complex situations, and work strategically using broad, well-developed thinking and reasoning skills.”

The OECD’s key findings report for the U.S. includes this worrying summary of math performance on the 2012 test:

“Students in the United States have particular strengths in cognitively less-demanding mathematical skills and abilities, such as extracting single values from diagrams or handling well-structured formulae. They have particular weaknesses in items with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems.”

All the more sobering when you consider that the U.S. spends more per student than 61 of the 65 countries where the test was taken. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland outspend America. Vietnam, a country with a poverty rate of 79 percent, outperformed the U.S. in all three tested subjects.

Though the rankings are instructive, the real value of the report lies in the information about how top-performing countries and economies achieve their excellent results. According to Duncan, there are some stand-out characteristics of better performing nations. Top performers tend to be laser-focused on developing college and career-ready skills and they also have universal access to quality early childhood education.

“The 2012 PISA results show that America is falling well short of our aspirational goals for education,” Duncan concluded. “We have an amazing chance to learn from our colleagues across the globe and take to scale what we know makes a difference in students’ lives. The fight for both equity and excellence should motivate us all.”

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