The PISA results are out, and the perpetual handwringing about the state of the U.S. education system has ratcheted up a notch in intensity. PISA stands for the Program of International Student Assessment, which is a test of mathematics, reading, science, and problem solving given to 15- and 16-year-olds in 65 countries. The test began in 2000, is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and has become, according to the OECD, “the world’s premier yardstick for evaluating the quality, equity and efficiency of school systems.”
The results currently under discussion are from the 2012 test, taken by approximately 510,000 students from across the world. The data and reports are fascinating and include, in addition to the scores, a wealth of information on the students taking the test. Below I have cherry-picked some of the outcomes that intrigue me, but you can access the full reports here.
The countries or regions with the highest average scores in mathematics were:
- Shanghai-China (with an average score of 613 out of 1,000)
- Hong Kong-China (561)
- Chinese Taipei (560)
- Korea (554)
- Macao-China (538)
- Japan (536)
- Liechtenstein (535)
- Switzerland (531)
- Netherlands (523)
Shanghai also garnered the top ranking in reading (570) and science (580), followed by Hong Kong (542/555), Singapore (542/551), and Japan (538/547). South Korea came in 5th in reading and 7th in science.
The U.S. ranked 29th with an average mathematics score of 481—132 points lower than the students in Shanghai. Students from Massachusetts obtained the highest average score (514) within the U.S., with Connecticut students not too far behind (506); even so, these students are still two years behind their counterparts in Shanghai. What U.S. students lacked in performance they made up for in confidence—they were more confident in their scores than the OECD average.
Over the years that PISA has conducted the test, the U.S. results have stayed pretty consistent, even as other countries have improved their scores around us. Amanda Ripley highlights many of the issues in her recent book, The Smartest Kids in the World And How They Got That Way.
One can level multiple criticisms at the test including:
- The biggest concern is the test itself. Students in different countries take different tests, and somehow—it’s not altogether clear how—the results are standardized across countries. Even within a country, students may take different tests or not be tested on all the items.
- Another concern is that the test is more about rote learning than it is about problem solving—although the questions are not quite as formulaic as you might think. You can see a sample of questions here. Still, it is a limited test given over a couple of hours.
- The Shanghai results cannot be representative of all of China, and it is problematic to compare the results from one city to those of the whole of the U.S. or, indeed, to compare tiny Liechtenstein, Estonia, and Iceland with larger and more complex economies.
- While Asian countries have dominated the top of the list, a fair amount of movement occurs from test to test. Finland, the darling of the education media, slipped out of the top 1o this year in mathematics (and the angst in that country is just as pronounced as in the U.S. with one newspaper headline proclaiming “Finnish Education is Crumbling Down.”).
- Results are often reported with little or no explanation. For example, the report mentions the gender gap in mathematics with no analysis of why.
For sure, the report includes interesting snippets of data that complicate the story of educational attainment. Students in the U.S. report being less happy at school than the average for the survey. At the top of this index, almost 100 percent of Indonesian students report being happy at school (really?), while 85 percent of Shanghai students and 78 percent of U.S. students are happy. At the bottom of the pack of all the countries surveyed when it comes to happiness is Korea, where only 60 percent of students are happy. . It surely comes as no surprise that Korean students have a less joyful time learning than do U.S. students. (Ripley’s book has a good description of the high stress Korean system with its over emphasis on “plug and chug” learning.) But what’s happening in Shanghai? How do they manage to get such good results and have relatively happy students?
Whatever you think of the results or the methodology used by PISA, the report card for the U.S. is essentially “could do better.” And, indeed, we need to do better—the stakes are too high and our children deserve better. While fixing the bigger issues within the U.S. education system is complicated and multifaceted, some things are pretty clear cut.
- Parents matter. When parents have high expectations for their children, those children tend to have greater perseverance and confidence and do better in school.
- Teachers matter. Strong student-teacher relationships have positive implications for student engagement. Countries at the top of the charts tend to be more respectful of teaching as a profession with pay scales that reflect this. Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan all pay their teachers more than the U.S.
- Disadvantaged students tend to be less invested in their education, and truancy and tardiness, not surprisingly, have negative consequences for educational attainment.
- “Schools with more autonomy over curricula and assessments tend to perform better than schools with less autonomy when they are part of school systems with more accountability arrangements and/or greater teacher-principal collaboration in school management.” The issue of autonomy is a big one within the U.S., but when teachers and principals are treated as expert professionals and given the tools to do their job, results improve.
While the latest PISA results for the U.S. are not where we would want them to be, we should remember that there are many excellent schools within the U.S. system—both public and private. Indeed, many of the brightest students in South Korea, Shanghai, and Singapore want to come to our schools. Our challenge as a nation is not how to make U.S. students more like their Asian counterparts, but how to mimic the great education that is happening in some of our schools, in all of them.