U.S. students are stagnating in reading and science proficiency while their math performance declined slightly, based on new results from an international assessment, cueing the usual spate of alarmed headlines, as well as no shortage of opportunities to misapply the data.
On the Program for International School Assessment (PISA), U.S. scores in reading and science were about the same as three years ago, leaving Americans near the middle of the pack. Results were lower in math in 2015 compared with 2012, placing the U.S. near the bottom of 35 industrialized nations. Singapore was the top performer in all three subject areas.
Fifteen-year-old students in more than 70 countries and education systems were tested on their critical-thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities as well as their proficiency in core subjects. While PISA has its limitations (and critics), it’s one of the few means of comparing U.S. student achievement to their global peers.
It’s not clear precisely why U.S. students are struggling to make gains on PISA. There’s plenty of speculation: school funding, inadequate teacher training, and inequitable educational opportunities are frequent targets. It’s also tempting to turn to other countries for inspiration (Estonia, anyone?), despite their vastly different social structures, student demographics, and methodologies for teacher training, standards, and instruction. As the Harvard math education professor Jon Star told Education Week’s Sarah Sparks:
“Certain countries do well or less well in a certain year, and everyone just rushes to that country to figure out what’s going on there. A few years ago it was Finland, and before that it was Japan. It’s tempting to want to say the implementation of some country’s [math curriculum] would work, but it just plays out so differently in each state and locality.”
There’s plenty of solid reporting on the full PISA results. But here are three areas that particularly caught my attention.