Equity & Diversity

Poverty’s Effect on U.S. Scores Greater Than for Other Nations

By Sean Cavanagh — December 07, 2007 8 min read
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Not only did many industrialized countries outperform the United States in science on a recent international exam, but American students’ academic achievement was also more likely to be affected by their wealth or poverty and family background than was their peers’ in higher-scoring nations.

That was one of several sobering findings for the United States included in the results of the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, released this week. The program showed U.S. students lagging behind a majority of participating developed nations in both science and mathematics.

American students ranked lower in science—the subject tested in the most depth on this PISA—than their peers in 16 other industrialized nations, out of 30 countries in that category.

In math, which was tested less extensively, U.S. students fared even worse, finishing statistically behind a group of 23 of the 30 developed nations that took part. In both science and math, Finland, South Korea, Canada, and Japan produced scores well above U.S. and international averages.

But test results and the accompanying study also appeared to show another trait of the U.S. education system, one that, in theory at least, seeks to provide equal opportunity for all students, regardless of economic circumstances.

The results of the test, given to 15-year-olds in 57 countries, including 5,611 U.S. students, show that an estimated 18 percent of the variation in Americans’ science scores were related to students’ socioeconomic circumstances, as measured by the PISA.

That proportion was significantly higher than the average—about 14 percent—among industrialized countries. And the socioeconomic variation was more than twice as high as that of several of the highest-performing countries in science, such as Finland and Canada, where it hovered at about 8 percent.

The fact that socioeconomic factors appeared to be less of a factor in higher-scoring nations is no accident, say the authors of the report, from the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which oversees PISA.

“PISA suggests that maximizing overall performance and securing similar levels of performance among students from different socioeconomic backgrounds can be achieved simultaneously,” they write. “Quality and equity need not be considered as competing policy objectives.”

Lessening the Impact

Nor can the United States’ socioeconomic difficulty be explained simply by its having a more economically diverse pool of students, said Andreas Schleicher, the head of the indicators and analysis division of the OECD. Citing Finland as an example, he noted that PISA data show that, contrary to popular impressions, some top-performing countries with relatively homogeneous racial and ethnic compositions serve students from fairly diverse economic backgrounds.

Finland “is able to [lessen] the impact of socioeconomic background,” Mr. Schleicher said in a Dec. 4 presentation in Washington on the PISA results.

PISA Results


SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

PISA measured socioeconomic status by asking test-takers questions about their families’ lives, wealth, and education. It considers such factors as whether students have certain possessions, such as televisions, computers, and books, and their parents’ education and occupations.

In his presentation, Mr. Schleicher also addressed what he called “myths” about the performance of the United States and other nations that score relatively poorly on the PISA—namely, that the test favors smaller and less economically and racially diverse countries.

He noted that most of the industrialized nations taking part in PISA tested a proportion of 15-year-olds very similar to the percent tested in the United States. The PISA data also showed no relationship between the size of nations and their test performance, and no relationship between nations’ percentage of immigrants and test scores, he said.

The exam’s results are not surprising, given research showing that the U.S. system tends to provide underprivileged students with less demanding curricula, poorer-quality teachers, and fewer educational resources than their peers in wealthier U.S. communities, said Ross Wiener, the vice president of program and policy for the Education Trust, a research and advocacy group in Washington.

“We give students less of everything that makes a difference in school,” Mr.Wiener said. If the public is inclined to believe “we’re doing as well as we can for these students,” he added, the international data “demonstrates we’re simply not.”

When the public looks for clues about high-scoring nations’ education systems, Mr. Schleicher said, too much emphasis is sometimes put on their having uniform, national academic standards—an idea that has periodically been discussed in the United States.

High-achieving countries like Finland tend to combine national standards with a strong emphasis on making sure those standards are clearly understood in local schools, he said. Finland, he added, also gives teachers and schools considerable autonomy in instruction aimed at meeting standards.

Some U.S. researchers advised caution in interpreting the results. While saying that the socioeconomic index used on PISA seemed reasonable, Henry Braun, a professor of education and public policy at Boston College, also argued that such measures often cannot account for all the wealth and family issues affecting students. That is especially true in racially and economically diverse nations like the United States, said Mr. Braun, who has worked on national educational studies sponsored by the U.S. government.

PISA, he said, “can’t capture the full panoply of factors” affecting students’ socioeconomic status, or the impact of different nations’ policies aimed at alleviating family poverty.

American students’ relatively low scores on national and international tests have been highlighted continually in recent years by political and business leaders, who worry that mediocre math and science skills will cause the United States gradually to lose its economic edge.

That theme was presented again this week by a number of education and business leaders, who appeared on a panel with Mr. Schleicher after the PISA results were released. The OECD official noted that the PISA results did not show U.S. performance slipping so much as other countries gaining, while American students stood still.

“Demography is not destiny,” said Susan L. Traiman, the director of education and workforce policy at the Business Roundtable, a Washington-based association of chief executive officers. Noting the progress of both industrialized and developing nations, she said, “improvement can and does occur at a more rapid pace than we thought in the past.”

Hal Salzman, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute, in Washington, criticized what he saw as the tendency among the news media and policymakers to cite mediocre American scores on PISA and other international tests and “suggest something about future economic performance” in the United States. Scant evidence of such a relationship exists, said Mr. Salzman, who co-wrote a study this year that cast doubt on broad claims that U.S. students lack the science and math skills to compete in the global economy.

Like Mr. Braun, Mr. Salzman suggested that U.S. students face more complex and significant socioeconomic barriers than what is reflected on PISA. Even so, he believes the overall findings about the connection between U.S. students’ economic status and their academic performance are accurate—and troubling.

“That is the headline,” Mr. Salzman said. “The U.S. education system does not do a good job in compensating for nonschool achievement factors.”

Reading Results

Unlike some large-scale tests, PISA measures learning that may occur outside, as well as within, formal academic settings. The test measures scientific literacy, which includes skills such as the ability to identify scientific questions, gain new knowledge, explain scientific phenomena, and draw evidence-based conclusions.

Overall, the United States scored an average of 489 on science, below the international average among industrialized nations of 500, on a scale of 1 to 1,000. Finland notched the top science score of 563, followed by Canada, Japan, and New Zealand. In 2003, the last time PISA measured performance in science, the results were similar, with U.S. students tallying an average of 491, 9 points lower than the industrialized average of 500.

In math, Finland also scored at the top, recording a 548, followed by South Korea and the Netherlands. The Americans’ average score was 474, 24 points below the average among industrialized countries of 498. In 2003, the United States was only 17 points below that average score.

In addition to its science and math results, the United States was supposed to have received PISA scores in reading. But those results were invalidated by printing errors in the testing booklets given to U.S. students, which both American and OECD officials determined would have skewed the outcome.

Officials at the National Center for Education Statistics, while taking partial responsibility for the mishap, said it was the primary duty of the contractor, RTI International, of North Carolina, to make sure the reading exams were printed correctly. (“Printing Errors Invalidate U.S. Reading Scores on PISA,” Nov. 28, 2007.)

South Korea, Finland, Canada, and New Zealand notched the highest scores among industrialized nations in reading, well above the OECD average of 492. Already one of the higher performers in 2000, South Korea saw its achievement soar by more than 31 points in 2006, to 556. In another international test of 4th graders’ literacy skills, out last month, Russia, Hong Kong, and Singapore, were among the top scorers. (“America Idles on International Reading Test,” Dec. 5, 2007.)

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