The academic performance of U.S. students is holding steady on a key international test, but no one is celebrating. New results show that the U.S. is slipping in global test rankings as such nations as Latvia and Poland move up. Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea continue to hold top spots in the test rankings.
Every three years, the Program of International Student Assessment (PISA) tests 15-year-olds around the world in reading, mathematics and science. The 65 countries and education systems that participated in the 2012 test represent 80 percent of the world's economy, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Test results, released today, showed that U.S. teenagers slipped in the rankings from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics.
U.S. scores have been basically flat since the PISA exams were first given in 2000, the Wall Street Journal reported. U.S. reading and science scores hover near the scoring average for countries that are members of the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the tests. In mathematics, however, U.S. students score below the international average.
"Meanwhile, some areas - Poland and Ireland, for example - improved and moved ahead of the U.S., while the Chinese city of Shanghai, Singapore and Japan posted significantly higher scores," the story said.
Stagnant, below-average mathematics scores are an area of deep concern, said an Education Week story.
"Poland, Vietnam, Austria, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Latvia and Luxembourg all overtook the United States by statistically significant margins in the math standings for 2012," the story said.
The new round of underwhelming PISA scores is prompting education leaders to study policies of high-performing countries.
""What do the high-performing nations do differently? They invest in early childhood education, said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel in a written statement. "They fully fund all of their schools. They make the teaching profession attractive and they support their teachers. They value the collaboration between parents, educators, administrators, communities and elected officials."
Researchers for the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute warn that it takes many months for scholars to analyze test data and that conclusions about PISA results should not be drawn too quickly.
Page 2 of 2 - The researchers found that there is a test score gap between wealthy and poor students in every country tested, and that average scores reflect relative numbers of rich and poor students in their schools.
"Trends in test scores over time vary more by social class in some countries than in others," the research report said. "In the United States, there have been striking gains over the last decade for disadvantaged students, but not for the more advantaged."
Some education-watchers say that stagnant PISA scores might not spell doom, as many media reports claim. American Enterprise Institute scholar Mark Schneider notes that Japan suffers from a poor economy despite dominating PISA rankings.
"After a nation achieves some level of literacy, other factors matter far more than a high PISA score," Schneider wrote. "The U.S. has a dynamic economy built on entrepreneurial ambitions, free-flowing capital, the rule of law, the fairly certain enforcement of contracts, historically high levels of interpersonal trust, favorable demographics - and a large population inhabiting a very large, resource rich continent. ... Let Japan and Belgium and Poland beat us on PISA. Who cares?"
More key results from the PISA exam, collated by Politico, include:
- In math, the U.S. ranked 26th in the world, on par with nations such as Hungary, Russia and the Slovak Republic.
- In science, the U.S. came in 21st, ahead of Russia and at the same level as Italy, Latvia and Portugal.
- In reading, the U.S. posted its best showing, with a rank of 17th in the world, on equal footing with the United Kingdom, France and Austria.
- Countries on the ascent in PISA rankings include Poland and Russia. Those slipping include Sweden and the once widely envied Finland, which has lost considerable ground in math. Canada remains a very strong performer on all three exams, as do the Netherlands and Germany.