Stagnant U.S. test scores deserve failing grade

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2013 - 5:20 PM

Global scores should help light a fire under U.S. educators, families.

Once again, an international academic examination of U.S. students shows that American families and educators have work to do.

Last week, the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reported that test scores for U.S. teens were flat, while those for their counterparts elsewhere — particularly in Asia — soared. Students in 65 of the world’s wealthiest countries participated, and those in 29 countries or educational systems scored higher than their U.S. counterparts in math. Students in 22 countries did better in science, and 19 countries performed better in reading.

Teens from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea were at the top of the rankings, while several countries comparable to the United States, including Ireland and Poland, pulled ahead for the first time.

American 15-year-olds posted average scores in reading and science, and below-average results in math. That pattern has not changed much since the well-regarded exams were first given in 2000.

Some observers said the results showed that federal No Child Left Behind testing is a failure and that school reform is ineffective. Others argued that the exams demonstrated the need to double down on reforms and use the successful strategies from other nations to radically change education here. The best solutions are likely somewhere in the middle.

Teens from every U.S. state and from a representative range of backgrounds took the tests. It’s unclear if the same representative sample of kids participated globally, making it possible that the results are not based on apples-to-apples comparisons.

And while the most-advantaged American teens may indeed be very competitive with other well-to-do kids globally, the fact remains that too many U.S. high schoolers are mediocre or lagging behind. Americans are quick to warn that too many high school graduates are not well prepared for even entry-level jobs, much less ready to compete with high achievers in other countries.

There are good reasons why students from around the globe flock to American institutions of higher education, but seldom to U.S. public high schools. Too much of what has been done in too many American families, communities and high schools isn’t working for too many kids. More hand-wringing won’t change that, but smartly using the reams of data we have to find new strategies can lead to progress.

The PISA results indicate that U.S. kids are not slipping, but that other nations are surpassing them. While models in higher-achieving countries may not be wholly interchangeable, what can this country learn from them?

Three states — Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida — paid extra to have their PISA results separated out and compared as if they were separate countries. Average scores from Massachusetts were above the international average in all three subject areas and ranked with Finland and other top performers, as well as with Canada.

Unfortunately, Minnesota did not opt out of the general U.S. comparison group. But if Massachusetts teens can excel with that state’s diversity and variety of family incomes, so can other U.S. states.

The PISA results reaffirm the need to get serious about improving outcomes for many American students. U.S. schools and communities cannot continue to produce middle-of-the-pack students. To be brainpower leaders in the 21st century, this nation must find ways to narrow its considerable education gaps and make quality education available to all kids regardless of race or income.

  • Two takes

    “We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators.”

    Education Secretary ARNE DUNCAN after calling the recent PISA test results a “picture of educational stagnation” in the U.S.

    • • •

    “The Shanghai [top PISA]scores frankly to me are difficult to interpret … They are almost meaningless.”

    TOM LOVELESS, of the Brookings Institution, who cautioned against reading too much into the results from the Chinese province where he believes the students tested come from more affluent families.

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