Are America's students falling behind the world?

December 09, 2013

The leaders of the nation's teachers unions immediately fired off news releases asserting that the mediocre PISA scores of American students showed that more than a decade of testing-based reform had failed our schools. Prominent reform leaders, by contrast, concluded from the test results that the U.S. was failing to change schools radically enough to aid its most disadvantaged students. Still others predicted that the U.S. economy would crash and burn because of our students' unimpressive math scores on the PISA exams compared with other countries' students. (American students ranked above the median in reading and science but below it in math.)

A saner interpretation of the PISA results came from researchers who have studied international rankings in great detail, and their message goes something like this: Calm down, everyone. The results on this and other international tests are more complicated than they look, and in this case, nuance makes a difference. Despite the doomsday talk, the scores a country receives on the PISA don't necessarily predict the strength — or weakness — of its future labor force or the trajectory of its economy, according to Martin Carnoy, a professor of education at Stanford University. Some countries with relatively low scores have built thriving, tech-based economies, while the economies of some high-scoring nations have faltered.

And the results on the PISA, administered every three years to 15-year-olds in 65 countries, tell us as much about cultural differences as about differences between school systems. In the Asian countries that took the top spots — including Singapore, South Korea and areas of China — families spend heavily on private tutoring to prepare their children for college entrance examinations that closely resemble the PISA tests, Carnoy said. So the high PISA results don't necessarily reflect on their schools.


CEPA Publications