U.S. Middle-Class Students Fall Short in Global Study

By Nora Fleming — April 03, 2013 3 min read
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Discussions of how to close the achievement gaps for low-income and minority students often take center stage in education policy discussions. Yet students from middle-class families, regardless of race and ethnicity, also have some catching up to do to be competitive on the global stage, a new report suggests.

U.S. students from families of middle-income households fell short of the average math and science scores of their middle-income peers in many countries, according to the report, which used data from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which tests 15-year-olds.

Students were divided into four categories based on socioeconomic background, with the top tier including those from affluent families with other social advantages, while those in the bottom quartile had the lowest family wealth.

The study from the nonprofit group America Achieves finds that U.S. 15-year-olds in the middle two quarters lagged behind students in similar economic circumstances in dozens of countries in the two subjects. Diving down further, American students in the second-highest category were outperformed by their peers in 24 countries in math and 15 in science. Those in the second-lowest category were outperformed by their peers in 31 nations in math and 25 in science.

The report also drew conclusions on where middle-class students stand internationally from the findings of a new PISA-based pilot test developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The new test allows individual U.S. schools to see how they stack up globally, and was first administered last year with support from America Achieves.

“Demography is not destiny. ...We will miss the boat if we don’t focus on all of our schools, including middle-class students,” said Jon Schnur, the executive chairman of America Achieves, in a conference call today on the report. “But [the results] are an empowerment tool, not an accountability tool, to help schools improve.”

The PISA, first administered in 2000, measures 15-year-old students in dozens of countries throughout the world on their reading, math, and science performance every three years. The 2009 exam found U.S. students’ performance ranking roughly in the middle of the 60 countries included.

According to the new report, socioeconomic factors could have less significance than originally thought, as some U.S. schools serving large concentrations of low-income students performed well and some serving mostly middle-income students performed poorly, in comparison with their global peers.

(The report’s measure of socioeconomic background and advantage takes into account several factors, including the education level of a student’s parents, their occupations, and the possessions they have in their homes as a proxy for wealth.)

The America Achieves report also highlights the results of a small number of individual schools that performed well against other countries’ performance on the 2009 PISA, per results of the pilot study, the OECD Test for Schools. Although the vast majority of the more than 100 schools that took part in 2012 declined to make their results publicly available (or even to allow their names to be made public), some schools did permit their inclusion in the report.

The pilot test evaluated more than 7,200 15-year-old students across 105 schools in 21 states on their performance in science, math, and reading for the first time in 2012. All participating schools received an evaluation guide based on their performance, highlighting their students’ strengths and weaknesses. (The test will be made available to other schools in fall 2013.)

The schools that agreed to allow their results to be included in the America Achieves report include: North Star Academy in Newark, N.J.; BASIS Tucson North High School in Tucson, Ariz.; Arroyo Grande High School in Arroyo Grande, Calif.; and 10 high schools in the Fairfax County district in Fairfax, Va. All of these were described in the report as “exceptional schools,” outperforming all countries on PISA.

“In a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer progress by state standards alone, but the best-performing education systems internationally,” said Andreas Schleicher, a special advisor on education policy to OECD’s secretary general and the deputy director for education, in a press release. “With this new OECD Test, schools now have the tools to see themselves in the light of what the world’s educational leaders show can be achieved.”

My colleague Erik Robelen wrote more on the OECD pilot test last year in this article. Meanwhile, recent results from two other global assessments show the United States making a stronger relative performance than PISA data suggest.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.