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U.S. Students Slide In Global Ranking On Math, Reading, Science

By Bill Chappell | NPR
Tuesday, December 3, 2013

American 15-year-olds continue to turn in flat results in a test that measures students' proficiency in reading, math and science worldwide, failing to crack the global top 20.

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, which come out every three years. The latest results, from 2012, show that U.S. students ranked below average in math among the world's most-developed countries. They were close to average in science and reading.

"In mathematics, 29 nations and other jurisdictions outperformed the United States by a statistically significant margin, up from 23 three years ago," reports Education Week. "In science, 22 education systems scored above the U.S. average, up from 18 in 2009."

In reading, 19 other locales scored higher than U.S. students — a jump from nine in 2009, when the last assessment was performed.

The top overall scores came from Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao and Japan, followed by Lichtenstein, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Estonia.

The math scores of students in Shanghai showed that they are "the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state," according to the study.

The U.S. was slotted between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania in the overall results, two spots behind Russia. But the PISA assessment notes that there are few statistical differences between the scores of the U.S. and those countries.

American Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the PISA findings a "picture of educational stagnation." He told The Associated Press that America needs to "invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators."

From the PISA assessment:

"Students in the U.S. are largely satisfied with their school and view teacher-student relations positively. But they do not report strong motivation towards learning mathematics: only 50 percent [of] students agreed that they are interested in learning mathematics, slightly below the OECD average of 53 percent."

Here's how NPR's Claudio Sanchez describes the situation for a report on Tuesday's Morning Edition:

"Remember the movie Groundhog Day, where the main character wakes up every morning and realizes nothing has changed? He's reliving the same day over and over again. Well that pretty much sums up the latest PISA results for 15-year-olds in the U.S. Their scores in reading, math and science have not changed since 2003."

That means teenagers in places such as Vietnam have outpaced their American counterparts in their average scores in math and science. Students in Ireland and Poland did better than the U.S. in all three subjects measured.

Claudio talked to Harvard professor Jan Rivkin, who co-chairs a project on U.S. competitiveness.

"While our scores in reading are the same as 2009, scores from Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Poland and others have improved and now surpass ours," Rivkin says. "Other countries that were behind us, like Italy and Portugal, are now catching up. We are in a race in the global economy. The problem is not that we're slowing down. The problem is that the other runners are getting faster."

As for what might improve Americans' showing, the PISA assessment suggests there is no simple answer:

"While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance. For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends around USD 53,000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over USD 115,000 per student."

More than half a million students took part in the assessment, which uses a paper-based test that lasts two hours. Students between the ages of 15 years, 3 months and 16 years, 2 months take the tests.

If you'd like to try some test questions yourself, you can do that at the PISA site.

Update at 9:50 a.m. ET: More Perspective On The Rankings

As you'll notice from our report, the PISA rankings include large cities in China rather than the nation's overall educational system. That practice, which isn't new for 2012, has long been a subject of debate.

"Twelve provinces in China took the 2012 PISA test, the OECD confirmed, but only the results from Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macao were publicly released," as Education Week reports.

The journal also cites the Brookings Institution's Tom Loveless, who wrote in October that "journalists and pundits will focus on the results from one province, Shanghai, and those test scores will be depicted, in much of the public discussion that follows, as the results for China. That is wrong."

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