Every 3 years in December, a well-funded organization called PISA releases a giant report on the test it gave 15 year olds around the world the previous year. And every 3 years, all respectable voices lament how badly the U.S. education system performs. For example, from today’s New York Times:
An international exam shows that American 15-year-olds are stagnant in reading and math even though the country has spent billions to close gaps with the rest of the world.
The achievement gap in reading between high and low performers in the United States is widening.
By Dana Goldstein
Dec. 3, 2019
The performance of American teenagers in reading and math has been stagnant since 2000, according to the latest results of a rigorous international exam, despite a decades-long effort to raise standards and help students compete with peers across the globe.
And the achievement gap in reading between high and low performers is widening. Although the top quarter of American students have improved their performance on the exam since 2012, the bottom 10th percentile lost ground, according to an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency.
The disappointing results from the exam, the Program for International Student Assessment, were announced on Tuesday and follow those from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an American test that recently showed that two-thirds of children were not proficient readers.
Over all, American 15-year-olds who took the PISA test scored slightly above students from peer nations in reading but below the middle of the pack in math.
Low-performing students have been the focus of decades of bipartisan education overhaul efforts, costing many billions of dollars, that have resulted in a string of national programs — No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core State Standards, the Every Student Succeeds Act — but uneven results.
There is no consensus on why the performance of struggling students is declining. Education experts argue vociferously about a range of potential causes, including school segregation, limited school choice, funding inequities, family poverty, too much focus on test prep and a dearth of instruction in basic skills like phonics.
And every three years the one dissenting voice is usually … me. I ritually point out that each race within the U.S. (see the red bars in my graph) did pretty darn good compared to the rest of the world. (Keep in mind, though, that the U.S. usually spends more per public school student than all but a few tax havens like Luxembourg.)
For example, the mean score on the three parts of the test — reading, math, and science — for U.S. Asians was 549, which would make them the third highest scoring place in the world, behind only the utopian city-state of Singapore and four rich cities in mainland China. (Scores are on an SAT-like 200 to 800 scale with 500 supposed to be the rich, or OECD, country mean, although the OECD mean was 488.)
At 521, U.S. whites outscored all countries founded by whites (light blue bars) except Estonia. American whites edged Japan and South Korea by one point, which isn’t shabby.
I’m not sure I believe these high scores for the U.S., but at least I don’t ignore them like everybody else does.
(Three years ago, American whites outscored American Asians for some unexplained reason, but this time the U.S. racial ranking is back to normal with Asian-Americans on top.)
U.S. Hispanics at 470 outscored all Latin American countries, with Chile scoring highest at 438. Mexico scored 416 and Dominican Republic came in last among Third World countries who bravely volunteered to take the test at 334. (I don’t know why the bar for DR got cut off at the bottom of the graph: after 26 years of use, MS Excel graphs remains an unpleasant mystery to me.) On the other hand, DR comes in first among baseball players, so they’ve got that going for them.
U.S. blacks scored 436, which is higher than Malaysia, Romania, and Thailand. No truly black-run country took the test, but in past years, American blacks beat Trinidad, a part black, part Asian Indian island country with oil money.
Keep in mind that there are of course methodological problems with a global test as ambitious as this. For example, if you want to score higher, don’t round up your dumber students to take the test. There are big differences in coverage between countries. For example, in the past, Argentina would complain that they rounded up 80% of their assigned 15-year-olds while Mexico did more like 60%. (Most First World countries are above 80% in coverage).
Can we trust the Chinese numbers? Beats me.
And lots of countries don’t take the PISA test or its rival TIMSS test. For example, India tried it in an off year in a couple of states and scored at sub-Saharan levels, so India hasn’t been back.
Here are my analyses of previous PISA cycles:
Here’s where I got the new data.
And here are the 2018 numbers I assembled:
|Hong Kong (China)||531||524||551||517|
|Korea, Republic of||520||514||526||519|
|U.S. two or more races||492||501||474||502|
|United Arab Emirates||434||432||435||434|
|Moldova, Republic of||424||424||421||428|
|Montenegro, Republic of||422||421||430||415|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||402||403||406||398|
|1 At least 50 percent but less than 75 percent of the 15-year-old population is covered by the PISA sample.
2 Less than 50 percent of the 15-year-old population is covered by the PISA sample In the case of reading literacy, the 2018 OECD average does not include Spain due to issues with its PISA 2018 reading literacy data. Although Spain’s PISA 2018 data met international technical standards, its reading literacy data show unusual student response behavior that prevent its data from being reported at this time. Scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000. Italics indicate non-OECD countries and education systems. Standard error is noted by s.e. B-S-J-Z (China) refers to the four PISA participating China provinces: Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang. Although Vietnam participated in PISA 2018, technical problems with its data prevent results from being discussed in this report.
SOURCE: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 2018.