U.S. Students Gain Ground Against Global Peers. But That’s Not Saying Much

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 03, 2019 4 min read
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The United States has gained ground against other countries in a global assessment of teenagers’ reading, math, and science skills. That’s a piece of irony, 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, the results of which were released Tuesday. 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 when the tests were last given in 2015. 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.

“In all of these cases, reading, math, and science, other countries’ education systems that were scoring higher than us, are now scoring comparable to us or below us,” said Peggy Carr, an associate commissioner for the National Center on Education Statistics, which administers the PISA in the United States. “We have remained steady and so our ranking has improved—not exactly the way you want to improve your ranking.”

The 2018 PISA, administered in the United States by the NCES 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.

See Also: What the International Test Gap Looks Like in the Classroom (Video)

The nation’s 15-year-olds performed on average at proficiency level two of six levels on PISA in reading—or as Carr put it, “not good at all. It’s comparable to NAEP’s below basic.”

To put that in context, that means the average U.S. 15-year-old could understand the main idea and draw basic inferences in a moderately long text, but would struggle to understand and compare texts that included multiple features or competing ideas, as is required in the next proficiency level. U.S. students could more readily reflect on texts given to them than locate information or understand and infer the meaning of what they read—results that mirror those in the latest Nation’s Report Card for reading, released last month.

The latter skills are urgently needed in a world with increasingly complex reading demands, according to the OECD.

“In the past, students could find clear and singular answers to their questions in carefully curated and government-approved textbooks, and they could trust those answers to be true,” OECD wrote in releasing the test results.

“Today, they will find hundreds of thousands of answers to their questions online, and it is up to them to figure out what is true and what is false, what is right, and what is wrong. Reading is no longer mainly about extracting information; it is about constructing knowledge, thinking critically, and making well-founded judgements.”

Immigrant students, who made up 23 percent of all U.S. students taking PISA, performed significantly better compared to their native-born peers in the United States than they did on average throughout the OECD countries.

Moreover, the OECD found that while about 2 out of 5 immigrant students were identified as low income, once socioeconomic factors were taken into account, nonnative U.S. students performed on average 16 score points higher in reading than their native-born peers.

Girls significantly outperformed boys in reading both in America and on average across the OECD, but the gender gap was smaller in the United States. However, U.S. girls also were more likely than boys to report that reading was a favorite hobby beyond school.

Equity Questions

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 reading and math, the top 10 percent of students have performed significantly better since 2012. In reading, for example, 14 percent of U.S. students performed at the highest two proficiency levels in 2018, 4 percentage points more than in 2015.

By contrast, the bottom 10 percent of U.S. students declined during that time. The lowest-performing students gained ground only in science.

The stretched-out performance across the nation’s 15-year-olds showed up as flat performance overall. In both reading and science, the United States had a bigger share of students who reached the highest two achievement levels than the OECD average, and smaller-than-average shares of students who performed at the lowest levels. In math, by contrast, the United States had a smaller pool of the highest performers and a bigger share of the lowest performers than the average for all tested countries.

Because such a large sample of U.S. students participated in the test, that meant the United States accounted for 30 percent of the entire pool of top reading students in PISA. (Data on total top performers were not available for math and science.)

“Maybe we can convince ourselves we are doing OK in reading if we don’t look at the differences between high- and low-performers,” Carr said, “but in math there’s a clear message: We are struggling in math compared to our peers around the world. Science is somewhere in the middle.”

Math and science were “minor” subjects in the 2018 PISA, meaning they were tested using smaller samples of students and questions.


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