15 year olds take international test, US slips in rankings

The “Program for International Student Assessment was administered to 15-year old students across the world by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, “a Paris-based group that includes the world’s wealthiest nations. Just over 6,100 American students took the exams,” as reported in the New York Times

The results from these exams were released today, and show that “teenagers in the U.S. slipped from 25th to 31st in math since 2009; from 20th to 24th in science; and from 11th to 21st in reading, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which gathers and analyzes the data in the U.S.,” from the Wall Street Journal

These results appear to be disconcerting to educators, students, parents, and politicians here in the U.S. The WSJ continues that:

“They are also likely to fuel the debate over which policy fixes could be instituted to boost results. Many U.S. schools already have undergone decades of policy overhauls, including grading teachers on student test scores, expanding school-choice options and instituting more rigorous math and reading standards.”

Both newspapers used the term “hand-wringing” to describe the effects that these test results could have on politicians, who worry that these 15 year-olds will not learn enough skills for the job market when they graduate. 

Some caution to interpret these test results with a grain of salt. 

“Experts caution against reading too much into the rankings without a deeper understanding of the differences in socioeconomic and racial composition among countries. The U.S., for example, has more children living in poverty than do many other industrialized countries, and 15% of the variance in test scores can be explained by socioeconomic status, according to the OECD analysis,” from the WSJ article. 

Education is one of the largest expenditures of the federal and state budgets in the U.S.; politicians commonly promise reform or better test scores in election times. The impact of this story could spur more promises, or actual change in some U.S. schools. 

“Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said the data show the U.S. has been going down the “wrong path,” and said high-scoring countries don’t use student test scores to pay and fire teachers or to rate and punish schools. ‘There is a road map out there,’ he said. ‘But we are not following it,'” as reported in the Wall Street Journal. 

While the Times also quoted Van Roekel, both articles presented the same facts (the results of the test scores), but focused on different consequences of those results. 

The Times focused on the implications of these students not being prepared for the U.S. work force. 

“Some scholars warned that the lagging performance of American students would eventually lead to economic torpor. “Our economy has still been strong because we have a very good economic system that is able to overcome the deficiencies of our education system,” said Eric A. Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University. “But increasingly, we have to rely on the skills of our work force, and if we don’t improve that, we’re going to be slipping,”” from the Times. 

On the other hand, the WSJ article focused on the test scores origins: the teachers and the curriculum. 

“Martin Carnoy, a professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who has studied PISA results, said policy makers often draw “oversimplified conclusions” from international tests. ‘These results don’t tell anything about the quality of teaching or the quality of the curriculum in countries,’ he said.”

The truth of this story is that U.S. students need to improve their test scores, in whatever way necessary. 

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