It’s a familiar story: American students aren’t performing well in international tests, and they once again lag behind Asian and European peers on a global exam. According to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the latest results on the PISA exam are a “picture of educational stagnation” as American students showed little improvement over three years.
U.S. students failed to score in the top 20 on math, reading or science. Chinese students from Shanghai were the top scorers in all subjects, and Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong students weren’t far behind. The test results show that Vietnam, which had its students participate for the first time, had a higher average score in math and science than the United States, writes Kimberly Hefling of The Associated Press.
The latest results again raise the question of whether the United States is consistently outperformed because of the widely varied backgrounds of its students. For example, some students are from low-income households, while others don’t have English as their primary language — but some countries that outperform the United States also face such challenges.
“Americans have got a thousand reasons that one country after another is surpassing our achievement, and I have yet to find a good excuse,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
In 2012, about half a million students in 65 nations and educational systems took part in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
The results were released by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. The test, given every three years to 15-year-olds, is designed to assess students’ problem-solving skills. U.S. scores on the PISA haven’t changed much since testing started in 2000, even as students in countries like Ireland and Poland have shown improvement and surpassed U.S. students.
Education Secretary Duncan called for an increased focus on education. “We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators,” he said.
One indicator of performance is how many students hit a high benchmark on each subject tested. In the United States, 9% of test-takers hit that mark in math, 7% did so in science and 8% did in reading. Fewer U.S. test-takers hit that mark in math than the international average. However, they performed at about the international average in the other two subjects.
In math, the U.S. average score was 481 against an international average of 494. In science, the U.S. average score was 497, while the international average was 501. In reading, the U.S. average score was 498, and the international average was 496.
Students from all states were tested. But for the first time, three states, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida, opted to increase participation in PISA to get more state specific results. Average scores from Massachusetts were above the international average in all three subject areas.
Overall, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said among the Asian nations dominating the test “the one thing they all have in common is that they make a real commitment to education for all kids, and nothing deters them from that vision, and then they do what’s necessary to make that happen. In the United States, we don’t have the commitment for all kids and it needs to change.”