Student Achievement What the Research Says

How Absenteeism, Math Anxiety, and Other Factors Shaped the Troubling Results From PISA

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 06, 2023 5 min read
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Across 81 countries and education systems, 15-year-olds lost the equivalent of three-quarters of a year of instruction in math and a half year of instruction in reading, though they held ground in science, according to the result of the 2022 Program for International Student Assessment.

In the United States, those results mean that 15-year-olds are now performing at the same level they did two decades ago.

The stunning findings are bound to cause handwringing both in the United States and internationally about what should be done to bolster flagging scores. The path forward, though, is unclear.

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“Too often PISA becomes this conversation ender rather than a conversation starter,” said Nate Driskell, the policy chief for the National Center on Education and the Economy. “People use it just as an excuse—either to immediately say global comparisons aren’t really valid … or to say this is a proof point that our broad public education system is failing, and that all of the assumptions of public education need to be fundamentally rethought. For me, both of those really miss the mark.”

One way to start having discussions is to look below the surface findings. Here are four issues raised in international tests that merit more attention.

Lowest achievers need attention

The international results echo historic drops in math on the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022. On that test, 25 percent of 4th graders and 38 percent of 8th graders could not meet the test’s lowest proficiency benchmark. That meant fewer than 3 out of 5 students in 4th grade could tell whether whole numbers are even or odd, and little more than 2 in 5 students in 8th grade could solve a problem using division.

Similarly, 34 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds performed at the lowest achievement level in math on PISA.

“That implies 34 percent of [U.S.] students taking PISA can’t convert currency. They can’t find the quickest way from point A to point B, to choose between two routes on a road,” Driskell said. “Leaving aside global economic competitiveness—the ability to find a resilient job, to adapt to learning for life—there are questions for the stability of communities and civic engagement and just the [students’] ability to launch into adulthood.”

Math content and literacies

The international test measures math achievement in two ways. It looks at students’ content knowledge in different areas, such as problems dealing with quantities, shapes, relationships, or data.

The United States still lags behind the global average—and particularly high-performing education systems like Singapore and Japan—but students performed slightly above OECD countries on average in data-related problems in 2022. Long-term declines in national tests in geometry and data have spurred state initiatives in the last few years to increase early instruction in those areas.

PISA also analyzes how students think mathematically: how they formulate, or identify when to use math; how they employ different concepts, facts, and procedures to solve a problem; how they reason mathematically; and how they interpret whether a given answer to a problem makes sense in the context of the real world.

Overall, U.S. students are better than average at interpreting whether a math solution makes sense in a real context. But they falter in many other math practices, especially compared to high-achieving nations.

Bob Hughes, the director of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s K-12 education in the United States program, said the foundation’s own teacher survey data finds that 45 percent of teachers report that none of their students’ work would be relevant to people outside the classroom. (The Gates Foundation provides funding to Education Week. The media organization retains full editorial control over its articles.)

“If we aren’t really talking about math as an interdisciplinary subject that affects other subjects, and continue to tightly cap it, then we’re going to have challenges,” Hughes said. “To be sure, you need kids to learn procedural and conceptual math, but if we don’t get to applied math, its value to them becomes harder to discern.”

For example, he noted that the mathematical concept of equilibrium has parallels in biology, chemistry, and political science. “Getting young people to understand how it plays out in each context and how it’s essentially the same is one way of opening a basic math concept to a broader set of relationships that are important,” Hughes said.

Math anxiety

In every country and education system that took part in PISA, students with high levels of math anxiety performed worse in math than those with low levels of fear about the subject. These students strongly agreed that they “get very tense when I have to do mathematics homework,” “feel helpless” when confronted with a math problem, and worry they will have difficulty in math class or get poor marks in math.

OECD researchers estimate that a quarter of the total variation in math performance across countries could be explained by the differences in overall math anxiety in each country.

Overall, low-performing countries were also the most math anxious, though Japan and three Chinese education systems also showed high anxiety. The United States, Korea, and Singapore all had average or low math anxiety compared to the global average.

“Students of color as well as girls and students with disabilities are less likely to have a strong [science, technology, engineering, and math] identity, but that strong STEM identity is associated with more success in those classes,” said Kristen Hengtgen, a senior policy analyst and math equity researcher for the nonprofit Education Trust. “If you feel comfortable in the class, you feel like you belong, you feel like this is your thing, then you’re more likely to persist in the face of challenges and engage in the content.”

Absenteeism

Chronic absenteeism has become a growing problem since the pandemic, both in the United States and around the world. The results indicate that increased absenteeism played out in the results.

The United States had about the same number of students skip individual classes or arrive late in the weeks before taking the PISA in 2022 as in 2018, but had significantly more students miss full school days.

However, in Argentina, Japan, and others that reduced absenteeism and had fewer students skipping classes from 2018 to 2022, math achievement increased for disadvantaged students.

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