The NCSL Blog


By Julie Bell

Student achievement in U.S. high schools is stagnant while other countries continue high student performance and others are moving students upward, according to results of the every-three-year Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) measurements.

Uboy in front of world map.S. students continue to underperform in science and reading when compared to their peers around the world. In mathematics, U.S. student scores dropped from previous levels. 

One positive finding is that some progress is evident in the reduction of achievement gaps in the U.S., something many states have focused on in the past few years. The top performing countries include Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Estonia and Canada.

The results are disappointing but not unexpected, especially to members of NCSL’s International Education Study Group. This bipartisan group of state legislators and legislative staff began studying the top performing countries about two years ago—shortly after the release of the last round of PISA scores.

The motivation for a focused effort by NCSL on the top performing countries stemmed from the fact that all of those countries had common strategies. The study group wanted to learn what lessons the top countries might have for states.

In the current PISA findings, Massachusetts provides a hopeful example for states searching for effective strategies. Massachusetts is one of three states that implement the PISA test as its own “country.”  In the latest study, Massachusetts scores as well as the top performing country, Singapore,  in reading, and ties for second with eight other countries in science. 

“In 1993 Massachusetts enacted major comprehensive legislation to improve student outcomes, much of which overlaps with practices that we have seen the top performers adopt,” says Representative Alice Peisch, a study group participant and chair of the Massachusetts House Education Committee.

“While we still have concern about our achievement gaps, Massachusetts is an example of the kind of results that states can accomplish when focusing on meaningful and strategically connected reforms—no silver bullets—and sticking with them.”

In 2014, shortly after the release of the last round of PISA scores, the NCSL International Education Study Group began to examine what the top performing countries have done to restructure education to achieve world-class results. In August 2016 the group released, “No Time to Lose:  How to Build a World-Class Education System State by State” summarizing its findings.

Specifically, the group found four fundamental elements of the education reform strategies of all of the top performing countries, including:

  • Children come to school ready to learn, and extra support is given to struggling students so that all have the opportunity to achieve high standards.
  • A world-class teaching profession supports a world-class instructional system, where every student has access to highly effective teachers and is expected to succeed.
  • A highly effective, intellectually rigorous system of career and technical education is available to those preferring an applied education.
  • Individual reforms are connected and aligned as parts of a clearly planned and carefully designed comprehensive system.

In addition to highlighting the four fundamental elements of education reform in the top performing countries, the NCSL group suggested a “call to action” for the states.

“Education is a state responsibility and reform can best be accomplished state by state,” says the NCSL report. As states consider new innovations through the Every Student Succeeds Act there are opportunities to reprioritize policy approaches and set a new course. This study group is embarking on phase two of its work, to learn more about how these countries designed and implemented key reforms.

PISA is administered by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.  The test is given to a random sample of 15-year-olds around the world every three years to determine their knowledge in math, reading and science.

Julie Bell is director of NCSL's education program.

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About the NCSL Blog

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.