School & District Management

U.S. Treads Water in PISA Results for Science, Math, Reading

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 06, 2016 4 min read
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U.S. teenagers seem to have internalized the national push to expand science and math fields, but that doesn’t mean they are as prepared for STEM jobs as students in other countries, according to results from the latest Program for International Student Assessment.

“The United States has one of the most science-oriented 15-year-old populations,” said Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs PISA. “The downside is the knowledge and skills of those students are not adding up to their expectations.”

The nation’s 15-year-olds performed above average for all countries participating in PISA in reading and science in 2015, and American students reported higher-than-average rates of enjoying science, reading about science, and interest in STEM careers, according to results released this morning. But overall, American students have not improved in either reading or science performance since 2009, and they have declined in math performance during that time, putting the United States slightly below the international average.

“We’re losing ground—a troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world,” said U.S. Education Secretary John B. King Jr. in a speech on the results in Boston this morning. “Students in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota aren’t just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines, they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany, and Japan.”

PISA focuses on measuring the math, science, and reading critical-thinking and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds in 77 countries and education systems. PISA results for the United States are similar but more negative than the results released last week in the more curriculum-focused Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. TIMSS includes 55 countries and education systems, many of which also participate in PISA but with students of different ages.

What Can U.S. Students Do in Science?

In science, U.S. students performed on average at Level Three of six proficiency levels. That means they could carry out simple experiments, identify evidence supporting a scientific claim, and distinguish between scientific and nonscientific issues, among other skills.

By contrast, only 8.5 percent of U.S. students performed at the highest two levels in science, at which students are expected to use abstract scientific ideas to explain phenomena; evaluate different interpretations of data, and make predictions based on experiments. That’s slightly better than the 8 percent of 15-year-olds in all tested countries who performed at the top levels—but far below the whopping 24 percent of tested students in Singapore who were top performers.

However, Schleicher commended the United States for closing achievement gaps between its highest- and lowest-poverty students. “Among OECD, there’s not a country that has been more successful in closing the socioeconomic gap than the United States,” he said. A third of American students in the lowest quarter of income perform in the top quarter of all students worldwide, up from only 19 percent in 2006.

U.S. students also performed at the international average in reading, though 14 countries and systems significantly outperformed the United States, including Singapore, Finland, Estonia, Poland, and the Chinese provinces of Hong Kong and Macau.

U.S. Math Scores Decline

While TIMSS showed the highest U.S. math scores on record in 8th grade in 2015, U.S. students just a few years older struggled on PISA.

American students scored on average 470, 20 points below the OECD average for that subject. Thirty-six countries and systems significantly outperformed the United States, including China, the Russian Federation, Portugal, Slovenia, and Vietnam.

“The United States is now outperformed by a growing number of, comparatively lower-income countries,” said Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “When looking at the top-performing education systems, it is critical to look not only at their average high performance, but also at the strategies they use to achieve much greater equity across and within schools compared to the United States.”

For example, OECD’s Schleicher noted that Vietnam and China’s Macau province—education systems counted among OECD’s most disadvantaged—who outperformed the most advantaged students in 20 other countries who participated in PISA. China significantly expanded the number of students who participated in the test this year, representing nearly 230 million in seven provinces.

Jon Star, a math education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education said the United States can take lessons from China and other countries that are making progress in both achievement and equity, but he warned that educators should not simply try to pluck out practices for use outside of their political and cultural contexts.

“Certain countries do well or less well in a certain year, and everyone just rushes to that country to figure out what’s going on there. A few years ago it was Finland, and before that it was Japan,” Star said.

“It’s tempting to want to say the implementation of some country’s [math curriculum] would work, but it just plays out so differently in each state and locality,” he said.

Charts: Top: Worldwide, nearly a quarter of all 15-year olds who participated in PISA in 2015 expects to work in a career related to science, though boys and girls differ in the areas of science they prefer. Bottom: There is significant overlap among top-performing students in reading, math, and science on the 2015 PISA, particularly among the highest-performing countries. Source: OECD, PISA 2016

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.