School & District Management What the Research Says

Performance Flat, But Gaps Widen in International Assessments

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 10, 2019 1 min read

The United States has gained ground against other countries in a global assessment of teenagers’ reading, math, and science skills. That’s ironic, though, considering this country has been running in place for years in all three subjects.

U.S. 15-year-olds made no significant progress on the Program for International Student Assessment. On a 1,000-point scale, students in 2018 earned on average 505 in reading, 478 in math, and 502 in science in 2018, statistically unchanged from the last test administration in 2015. Yet because several other countries declined during the same period, the United States rose in global rankings on all three tests. the United States significantly outperformed the average for all OECD countries in both reading and science, while it significantly underperformed the OECD average in math.

The PISA results echo those released last month from “the nation’s report card” that find widening gulfs between the highest- and lowest-performing students in reading and math. In both subjects, the top 10 percent of students have performed significantly better since 2012, while the performance of the bottom 10 percent of U.S. students declined.

The 2018 PISA, administered in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics and developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, measures the skills of about 600,000 students from nearly 80 countries and education systems.

U.S. 15-year-olds performed on average at proficiency level on two of six levels on PISA in reading. That means the average American of that age understood the main idea and drew basic inferences in a moderately long text but struggled to understand and compare texts that included multiple features or competing ideas. They more readily reflected on texts given to them than located information or understood and inferred the meaning of what they read—results that mirror those of the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress for reading. The latter skills are sorely needed in a world with increasingly complex reading demands.

A version of this article appeared in the December 11, 2019 edition of Education Week as Performance Flat, But Gaps Widen in International Assessments

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