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Brightest U.S. students still struggle internationally

The results of the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ere published late last year. Per some educational expert accounts, we’re losing ground.

The brightest students in the United States are increasingly competing at a level equal or lower that the average international students, even behind students from countries generally considered underdeveloped.

Every three years, students from around the world take an international test that aims to assess international student performance, then evaluate and compare education systems worldwide. The exam tests the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. PISA is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In 2015, about 540,000 students representing 72 countries took the international two-hour test. Students were assessed in science, mathematics, reading, collaborative problem solving and financial literacy. The test is based on a 1,000-point scale.

The 2016 results revealed these findings: In math, the U.S. average score was 470, below the international average of 490. Average scores ranged from 328 in the Dominican Republic to 564 in Singapore. In science, the U.S. average score was 496, about the same as the international average of 493; average scores ranged from 332 in the Dominican Republic to 556 in Singapore. In reading, the U.S. average score was 497, just above the international average of 493; average scores ranged from 347 in Lebanon to 535 in Singapore.

For U.S. students, average scores in math have been on the decline since 2009, and scores in reading and science have been flat during that same time period. In the recent PISA result, Singapore led in all categories while the Dominican Republic was on the lowest end. Across the globe, U.S. students were ranked 37th in math; 19th in science and 14th in reading.

Numerous countries, including the United States, participate in the designing and the piloting of the PISA tests prior to it administration, thus making the test a good sample of what each participating country admits to be fair assessment for its students. The main question that we should be asking ourselves is to identify what explains the under-performance of U.S. students at the global level.

Since we spend huge sums of money on education in comparison to many of the countries (such as Estonia and Vietnam) that outperformed us in the test, one could easily argue that money is not the only determining factor in high educational achievement.

In my graduate course and presentations on International and Comparative Education, students always identify a limited number of causes of U.S. student academic shortfalls. Some potential targets are teachers’ training and qualification, administrators, parents, politicians, student ethnicity and poverty.

The overall culture of how the entire U.S. society views education seems to play a major role in student achievement. That culture might need serious review, including school governance, politics and funding, educational leadership, curriculum and instructional methodology, (type) of parent involvement, school calendar, extracurricular activities and student assessment.

In an Associated Press story, Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said, “Students in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota aren’t just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines, they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany, and Japan.”

I believe that a lot is being done, but more progress must be made.

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