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U.S. seeks global solutions to stagnant scores

U.S. students score average in reading and science, below average in math on international assessment

Once again, the United States has landed in the middle of the pack on an international assessment, leading education experts to question what top-performing nations are doing that our schools are not.

More than half a million 15-year-old students from 65 nations participated in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which measures performance in math, science and reading. The exam is offered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international organization created in 1961 to stimulate economic progress and trade. All 34 OECD member nations participated. The test was first given in 2000, and is repeated every three years.

The United States scored below average in math, ranking 26th among the 34 OECD countries. The nation scored average in the other two subjects, placing 17th in reading and 21st in science. Though America’s performance has remained steady for the past decade, other countries have surpassed the nation in the rankings. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the U.S. scores “a picture of educational stagnation.”

‘We need to adapt the best strategies to build a version uniquely suited to our own needs.’

Parts of China, along with Singapore, Korea and other Asian nations, were among the top performers in each subject.

U.S. policy and education leaders should “carefully study the strategies, policies and practices used by the top performers, not with an eye to copying anyone, but to learn from them, to adapt the best to build a version uniquely suited to our own needs,” says Marc S. Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy. Policymakers and school administrators can also take the following tips from leading countries, he says:

  • Provide increased resources to struggling students.
  • Invest more heavily in training teachers and ongoing professional development. Some high-performing nations, such as Finland, have higher standards for teacher preparation programs. Other regions, such as Shanghai, have rigorous systems in place for helping teachers improve from year to year.
  • Develop internationally competitive academic standards in the United States, with assessments that can measure a full range of complex thinking skills.

Charter models

Spending more on education may not be the only solution to increase academic performance, the PISA results note. For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends about $53,000 annually per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which ranks fifth in education funding and spends more than $115,000 each year per student.

One solution may be for U.S. school administrators to adopt policies from charter models that spend less than traditional public schools, says Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform. For example, research shows that school autonomy over hiring and firing teachers and setting salaries, as some successful charters have, contributes to higher PISA math scores.

The Common Core

The implementation of the Common Core is likely to give the United States a boost in PISA scores because the new standards are aligned with the skills tested by the international exam, says David Griffith, ASCD director of public policy. For example, Common Core math, like PISA, requires a deeper contextual understanding of math concepts. Districts’ focus on building computer skills to prepare students for the online Common Core assessments will also help get them ready for the online format of the PISA tests.

Overall, no single initiative will raise PISA scores, which may also be influenced by poverty and other factors, Griffith says. “There’s no single magic bullet,” he adds. “Schools should continue implementing the Common Core, and providing comprehensive support to students in academics and extracurriculars. It’s hard work, but it’s all wrapped up together.”