U.S. Students Get Stuck in Middle of the Pack on OECD Test

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The lackluster results for the U.S. on the Programme for International Student Assessment have fueled calls for the country to improve its education standards or risk falling behind advancing Asian economies. Close

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Photographer: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The lackluster results for the U.S. on the Programme for International Student Assessment have fueled calls for the country to improve its education standards or risk falling behind advancing Asian economies.

U.S. teenagers showed little progress on an international test of math, science and reading, which was again led by students in Shanghai and Singapore, bolstering support for tougher standards in U.S. schools.

The U.S. placed below average in math and about average in reading and science among the 34 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based agency that released results today of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment. There was little change from the last test three years ago, the OECD said.

Lackluster results for the U.S. on the PISA have fueled calls for the country to improve its education standards or risk falling further behind advancing Asian economies. Concerns about U.S. academic performance have helped give rise to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, designed to align and raise expectations for learning across the country. More than 40 states have adopted the standards, although some are delaying implementation because of concerns about a federal takeover of education.

“The systems that are making the most progress have embraced rigorous curriculums for their kids, and we need to do the same thing,” said Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, the nonprofit group that places college graduates in teaching positions at low-performing schools. “It’s very hard to make progress without adopting globally benchmarked standards for our kids.”

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Students in the U.K. did slightly better than those in the U.S., finishing above average in science and about average in math and reading. Close

Students in the U.K. did slightly better than those in the U.S., finishing above... Read More

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Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Students in the U.K. did slightly better than those in the U.S., finishing above average in science and about average in math and reading.

Math Performance

Only 2 percent of U.S. students reached the highest level of math performance, compared with the OECD average of 3 percent and 31 percent of the students in Shanghai. The U.S. also had a larger percentage of students at the bottom of the scale compared with the OECD average.

About 510,000 students around the world took the exam, first administered in 2000. To be eligible, students had to be between 15 and 16 and have completed six years of formal schooling. In the U.S., 6,000 randomly selected 15-year-olds at 161 schools took the test.

In math, students from Shanghai scored 613 on a 1,000-point scale where the OECD average was 494. Students from Singapore scored 573, Hong Kong 561, Taiwan 560, South Korea 554, Macau 538 and Japan 536. Students in the U.S. scored 481, also trailing countries such as France, the U.K. and Russia. Shanghai students also led the world in reading and science.

China isn’t a member of the OECD and doesn’t take part in the countrywide test, although Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau do.

U.S. Results

The U.S. was 17th in reading, 21st in science and 26th in math. Because the results are based on a sample of students, the national rankings can vary from about six to eight positions, the OECD said.

The U.S. performed about average in reading and science and below average in math, even though it spends more per student than every OECD country except for Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland. The U.S. also ranks near the top of the OECD in the educational attainment of parents.

Shanghai’s schools have excelled because they have tough standards, invest in teacher development and are committed to improving the poorest schools, said Kopp, who now leads Teach for All, which works to improve education globally.

“These are all thing we know how to do in the U.S.,” Kopp said.

Cognitive Demand

U.S. students are better at solving math problems with relatively simple structures, such as extracting a number from a diagram, the OECD said. They struggle with questions that require “higher cognitive demands,” such as taking a real-world situation and translating it into a formula, according to the report.

The U.S. could improve math results by implementing the Common Core standards, which require more sophisticated modeling of concepts than what is traditionally taught, according to the report’s authors.

“If more students work on more and better modeling tasks than they do today, than one could reasonably expect PISA performance to improve,” the report said.

The Common Core standards were developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. The Obama administration has supported their adoption.

Common Core

The standards are intended to shift the focus of all U.S. state education systems to career and college readiness, a move that some states and many other nations have already made, said Sonja Santelises, vice president for K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

“No set of standards, in and of itself, is single handedly going to change the U.S. score on PISA,” Santelises said. “What the Common Core does is give as an opportunity to shift the target as a nation.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the results show that a decade of test-based schooling and teacher sanctions has failed to improve the quality of American education.

“The crucial question we face now is whether we have the political will to move away from the failed policies and embrace what works in high-performing countries so that we can reclaim the promise of public education,” Weingarten said in a statement.

Students in the U.K. did slightly better than those in the U.S., finishing above average in science and reading and average in math. There was no change in results from 2009 or 2006 results.

“No issue matters more to the U.K. economy over the long term than the quality of our education system,” said Katja Hall, the chief policy director for the Confederation of British Industry, a business lobbying group, in an e-mailed statement. “U.K. schools are treading water when we know that matching the very best could boost the growth rate by one percentage point every year.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Oliver Staley in London at ostaley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lisa Wolfson at lwolfson@bloomberg.net

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