By Lee Posey

International comparisons are tricky. Every three years the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development or OECD administers the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to half a million students in 65 countries.

Andreas Schleicher_blog
Andreas Schleicher (OECD)

The results of the 2012 test were just announced and state legislators and staff attending NCSL’s Fall Forum got a special presentation on the results from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD. The PISA results show a stagnant U.S. performance in reading, science and math. Of the 65 countries, the United States ranks 26 in math, 21 in science, and 17 in reading. Other eye-opening results include:

  • Only 2 percent of American students reach the highest levels of math achievement.
  • Twenty six percent of American students can’t reach PISA level 2 in mathematics.
  • Students in Ireland, Poland, Latvia, the U.K. and the Czech Republic outperform U.S. students.

Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts administer the PISA, and we have state-level information for those states. Massachusetts performed the best of the three, but Shanghai, the top performer, has triple the rate of high-performing students.

Do our PISA results mean it’s time to bemoan the state of American education? Obviously, the results are not stellar. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has described the results this way: “We’re running in place and other countries are lapping us. “

Nevertheless, the United States does show some success in mitigating the academic impact of poverty among its students. And strong improvement on the PISA from Turkey, Brazil and Mexico show improvement is possible, even in countries with fewer resources. Overall, 40 countries improved their scores. 

As part of his presentation, Schleicher pointed out that countries can do well in both educational excellence and equity. In fact, educational systems that invest education resources most equitably perform best. Ultimately, the most important factor seems to be a commitment to universal achievement. 

A distinguished panel commenting on Schleicher’s presentation consisted of Carlos Contreras of Intel Corp. Marc Tucker of National Center on Education and the Economy, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.Tucker asked a question that seemed to strike a chord with the audience: “Isn’t it time we built our education reform agenda around strategies used by nations with the best education systems?” 

The session provoked much discussion among meeting attendees. Senator Luther Olsen (R) of Wisconsin said the PISA session information contained “a lot that NCSL can take to help states more forward with up-to-date data.” Representative Mary Stuart Gile (D) of New Hampshire was interested in exploring how the high performing countries handle assessments. Many of them have only three assessments during a student’s career (although they are high stakes), in contrast with the current movement in the United States to test students annually in grades 3-8 and once in high school. She wondered if this is useful in a time of limited resources. 

Lee Posey is senior committee director in NCSL’s 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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