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By Lee Posey

How well are American schools preparing students for the 21st century global economy?

A study to be released Dec. 3 will give a snapshot into how 15-year-old students in the United States compare to students in 65 other countries in math, science and reading. Attendees at NCSL’s Fall Forum will hear about the results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a worldwide study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), two days after they are released. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD will discuss the implications of the study and will be joined at the plenary lunch by a distinguished panel of respondents: Carlos Contreras, Intel Corporation; Marc Tucker, National Center on Education and the Economy; and Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers.

The PISA study was first performed in 2000, and is repeated every three years, giving U.S. policymakers the chance to compare American student achievement with the results from around the world. The PISA tests results always spark lively debate and commentary. PISA tests critical thinking in math, science and reading in 15-year-olds. The test questions do not measure memorization of facts, but rather demand that students draw on knowledge and real-world problem-solving skills.

Because a high ranking on PISA correlates to economic success, researchers have concluded that PISA is one indicator of whether school systems are preparing students for the global knowledge economy of the 21st century. 

Critics of PISA note that the United States has a higher percentage of disadvantaged/poor children and argue that this fact affects comparative ranking. Data from the OECD, however, shows that the United States actually scores at about the OECD average of disadvantaged students. The United States, however, has more students from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds—in other words, students in the United States on the whole are better off than the average OECD countries—raising fascinating questions about the relationship between a country’s level of social inequality and its academic results.  

But what can the results actually tell us about how to improve education? Certainly the results of past tests have raised concerns about the comparative performance of American students: American student achievement is stagnant, but students in Asian countries continue to perform at or near the top of the heap. The OECD believes that the data are useful as a benchmark, providing a context to understand what successful school systems look like.

One encouraging trend from the PISA results is that school turnaround can happen quite quickly. Successful reforms have taken 10 or fewer years in some countries. In a July 2012 TED talk focused on using PISA data to improve schools, Schleicher noted that stellar performers show all countries what is possible to achieve.   

Lee Posey is senior committee director, NCSL State-Federal Relations Division.

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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.

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