PISA 2012 is the programme’s 5th survey. It assessed the competencies of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science (with a focus on mathematics) in 65 countries and economies.
Around 510 000 students between the ages of 15 years 3 months and 16 years 2 months participated in the assessment, representing about 28 million 15-year-olds globally.
The students took a paper-based test that lasted 2 hours. The tests were a mixture of open-ended and multiple-choice questions that were organised in groups based on a passage setting out a real-life situation. A total of about 390 minutes of test items were covered. Students took different combinations of different tests. They and their school principals also answered questionnaires to provide information about the students’ backgrounds, schools and learning experiences and about the broader school system and learning environment.
Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 26th…Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average. The United States ranks 17 in reading, (range of ranks: 14 to 20) and 21 in science (range of ranks: 17 to 25). There has been no significant change in these performances over time.
Mathematics scores for the top-performer, Shanghai-China, indicate a performance that is the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state.
While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance. For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends around USD 53 000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over USD 115 000 per student.
Just over one in four U.S. students do not reach the PISA baseline Level 2 of mathematics proficiency – a higher-than-OECD average proportion and one that hasn’t changed since 2003. At the opposite end of the proficiency scale, the U.S. has a below-average share of top performers.
Students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems. An alignment study between the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics and PISA suggests that a successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains also in PISA.
While these results always make news, this year there is an added tempest in the teapot of the education policy world: The OECD and the Obama administration worked in advance with a selected group of advocacy organizations to launch a media campaign called PISA Day. Which organizations? The College Board, ACT, America Achieves, and the Business Roundtable–all key architects of the Common Core, the new national curriculum standards whose increased rigor and standardized tests have led to a much-publicized protest movement among some parents, teachers, and kids. Groups that support the Core have an interest in calling attention to low American test scores, which today they will use to argue that the Core is the solution not only to our academic woes, but also to reviving the American economy. Happy PISA Day!
But the truth is that the lessons of PISA for our school reform movement are not as simple as they are often made out to be. PISA results aren’t just about K-12 test scores and curricula–they are also about academic ability tracking, income inequality, health care, child care, and how schools are organized as workplaces for adults.
Not much has changed since 2000, when the U.S. scored along the OECD average in every subject: This year, the U.S. scores below average in math and ranks 17th among the 34 OECD countries. It scores close to the OECD average in science and reading and ranks 21st in science and 17th in reading.
Here are some other takeaways from the report:
America Is Struggling at Math
The U.S. scored below the PISA math mean and ranks 26th out of the 34 OECD countries. The U.S. math score is not statistically different than the following countries: Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Lithuania, Sweden, and Hungary.
Do American Schools Need to Change? Depends What You Compare Them To
On average, 13 percent of students scored at the highest or second highest level on the PISA test, making them “top performers.” Fifty-five percent of students in Shanghai-China were considered top performers, while only nine percent of American students were.
For the last few years, many U.S. educators and policy makers have looked to Finland, noting its high test scores and laser-like focus on attracting and retaining the best teachers. Although Finland still posts high scores, they have slid in the past few years.
Poland, on the other hand, has seen sharp improvement. The only European country to have avoided the recession, Poland undertook a host of education overhauls in 1999, including delaying by one year the system that places students into academic or vocational tracks, and crafting better systems to identify struggling students and get them help.
“Poland launched a massive set of reforms and, while we cannot say for sure they caused the improvement, they certainly are…a sort of plausible explanation,” said Andreas Schleicher, deputy director for education and skills at the OECD.
In Massachusetts, educators and policy makers credit the good showing, in part, to a 1993 effort that boosted spending and ushered in rigorous standards and achievement tests that students have to pass to graduate.