Deconstructing PISA: Implications for Education Reform and Fighting Poverty

Elaine Weiss and Dr. Thomas W. Payzant:

Every three years, American policymakers eagerly anticipate the release of scores for the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). While any single test, no matter how strong, can explain only a limited amount about our education system, PISA provides some unique insights, testing students’ ability to apply knowledge and skills both in and out of school. It is taken only by 15-year-olds, making it a decent proxy for the “college-and-career readiness” that is the focus of current debates.
The 2013 headline is basically that the United States falls right in the middle of the pack, as it has for several decades. The U.S. Department of Education and its allies used those rankings to argue that U.S. schools are “stagnating” and to advance specific reforms it says will fix them. However, average scores may obscure and confuse more than they inform. Indeed, scores from individual states that have their own PISA rankings offer more policy-relevant insight than overall U.S. rankings. This makes sense — U.S. education looks more like a diverse patchwork than a unified system. Public investments in schools, and in students and their families, vary greatly across states, as do other policies that may boost or depress scores. Luckily, this year, three states received individual PISA rankings — as if they were independent countries. This can help us connect the dots between those disparities and scores.
Massachusetts is the good news story. If it were its own country, it would rank sixth in reading of 65 countries and economies included, behind only Singapore, Japan, Korea, and the Chinese regions of Shanghai and Hong Kong. Its students rank just above Finland and Canada, some of the world’s best readers. Though its math scores are slightly lower, Massachusetts keeps company with Belgium and Germany and is only slightly behind Finland and Canada, ranking 16 of 65. In science, Massachusetts ranks 11th, ahead of Canada and Germany. Connecticut, the second of three states with its own scores, falls just below Massachusetts, ranking 9th in reading, 18th in math, and 17th in science.