Did US Students Perform Better on PISA Than We Thought?

A new report out of the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the Economic Policy Institute claims that a misreading of data has led people to conclude that U.S. students are underperforming their international peers in academics. The authors argue that a fresh look at the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report published in 2009 shows that American students didn't perform nearly as badly as was originally believed.

When social and economic background are figured into the equation, American students actually perform nearly as well as students from Canada and outperform students from France, Germany and the U.K. by a substantial margin. In part this is due to recent gains made by low-income students who are closing in on their more economically advantaged peers in the U.S. at a faster rate than disadvantaged students are gaining in other countries.

"Our main message is a cautionary tale," said Martin Carnoy, a professor of economics and education at Stanford who coauthored the report. "If you don't make some attempt to look at everything by social-class groups, you are headed for lots of mistakes … in your policy conclusions."

Part of what hobbled U.S. performance on PISA was the higher number of disadvantaged students present in the sample compared to other countries.

Hechinger Report cites a 4% figure when reporting the percentage of Finland's school children who live in poverty. In contrast, nearly a quarter of U.S. children live in household with incomes below poverty line.

In addition to the large discrepancy in the number of needy children, the 2009 PISA test analysts also made an oversampling mistake by testing a bigger proportion of low-income students than were present in the general population.

About 40 percent of American PISA-takers attended a school where half or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch, although nationwide only 23 percent of students attend such schools. After adjusting for both of these factors, they estimated that the United States would place fourth in reading and 10th in math—which demonstrates that educational reforms alone aren't enough for the United States to catch up to the international competition, Carnoy said.

According to Carnoy, the policies that focus solely on the quality of instruction are therefore only tackling half the problem. Before the gap between America and other countries in education can be closed, there will need to be a sustained and comprehensive effort to reduce poverty levels in the U.S.

That is why the authors are condemning the recent publication of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results a full five weeks before the desegregated results are published. They say that focusing on the average results leads down the path of ineffective education policy by targeting elements that will have little or no impact on academic outcomes.

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