Education Opinion

Predictable PISA Results

By Walt Gardner — December 04, 2013 2 min read
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The results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment should come as no surprise to anyone (“U.S. High-School Students Slip in Global Rankings,” The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 3). They confirm what study after study has shown about the link between performance and poverty. Yet PISA will be used by privateers as evidence of the need to dismantle public education in this country. That’s why I think it’s worthwhile taking a closer look.

PISA is widely considered the most important of all tests of international competition because it measures whether students can apply their knowledge to real-life situations. This is all the more reason to put the results into proper context. The U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, according to UNICEF. Only Mexico is worse, but I hardly consider it to be industrialized. When more than 20 percent of children in the U.S. come from impoverished backgrounds, it’s predictable that they will not perform as well as children from other countries.

The problem is seen in Education Department data. Poor children enter kindergarten already three months behind the average in reading and math, and never catch up. I understand why those who have never taught are frustrated. They point to the billions spent on public education and wonder why the dollars don’t produce better test scores. It’s a fair question. What they don’t realize is that two-thirds of student achievement is the result of out-of-school factors (“Teachers Were Never The Problem,” In These Times, Nov. 8). Teachers are not responsible for these conditions, and yet they are blamed when their students don’t measure up.

There are two other points that are given short shrift by privateers. PISA was taken by about 6,000 randomly selected students from 161 public and private schools. I don’t know exactly how many private students were included. But if private schools are the answer to educational quality, then why didn’t their students increase U.S. scores on the latest PISA? The other point has to do with the inclusion for the first time of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida. It’s interesting to note that students from Massachusetts and Connecticut did as well as or better than the averages of other countries. I say that because both states have relatively low household poverty rates. For example, Massachusetts has a poverty rate of 10.1 percent, ranking it 14th in the nation, and Connecticut has a poverty rate of 9.7 percent, ranking it 9th.

I want to emphasize once again that poverty is not destiny. There are heartening stories of public schools serving poor students that post impressive test scores. These high-flying schools deserve praise for their accomplishments. But they remain outliers. That doesn’t mean their success cannot be duplicated by other public schools with similar student populations. However, I remain skeptical about the scalability.

The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner’s Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.