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On PISA, U.S. Students Struggle to Shine

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U.S. students are stagnating in reading and science proficiency while their math scores declined slightly, based on new results from an international assessment, cueing the usual spate of alarmed headlines, as well as no shortage of opportunities to misapply the data.

On the Program for International School Assessment (PISA), U.S. scores in reading and science were about the same as three years ago, leaving Americans near the middle of the pack. Results were lower in math in 2015 compared with 2012, placing the U.S. near the bottom of 35 industrialized nations. Singapore was the top performer in all three subject areas.

Fifteen-year-old students in more than 70 countries and education systems were tested on their critical-thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities as well as their proficiency in core subjects. While PISA has its limitations (and critics) it’s one of the few means of comparing U.S. student achievement against their global peers.

We don’t know precisely why U.S. students are struggling to make gains on PISA. There’s plenty of speculation: school funding, inadequate teacher training, and inequitable educational opportunities are frequent targets. It’s also tempting to turn to other countries for inspiration (Estonia, anyone?), despite their vastly different social structures, student demographics, and methodologies for teacher training, standards, and instruction. As Harvard math education professor Jon Star told Education Week’s Sarah Sparks:

“Certain countries do well or less well in a certain year, and everyone just rushes to that country to figure out what’s going on there. A few years ago it was Finland, and before that it was Japan. It’s tempting to want to say the implementation of some country’s [math curriculum] would work, but it just plays out so differently in each state and locality.”

There’s plenty of solid reporting on the full PISA results. But here are three areas that particularly caught my attention:

For older U.S. students, math is not adding up. Another international test recently published its latest results: the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). Unlike on PISA, U.S. students have made slow but steady progress for decades. However, as Joy Resmovits points out in The Los Angeles Times, that’s a different type of test and it’s given to younger students (4th and 8th graders, vs. 15-year-olds).

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and skills, said during an EWA webinar on Monday that U.S. students’ levels of proficiency appear to decline as kids advance to higher grades, contrary to the trend in many higher-performing countries.

He also highlighted another troubling issue suggested by the PISA results. “Students are often good at answering the first layer of a problem in the United States. But as soon as students have to go deeper and answer the more complex part of a problem, they have difficulties,” Schleicher said.

The achievement gap among rich and poor students in the U.S. is narrowing. This is actually an area where the U.S. deserves significant credit, says the OECD’s Schleicher. While there’s still significant ground to cover, no country is making greater progress on closing its equity gap than the United States, he said during the EWA event.

As Amanda Ripley, a journalist who authored “The Smartest Kids in the World” wrote for The New York Times, “In 2006, socioeconomic status had explained 17 percent of the variance in Americans’ science scores; in 2015, it explained only 11 percent, which is slightly better than average for the developed world. No other country showed as much progress on this metric.”

This could be part of the legacy of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which required states and districts to pay closer attention to achievement by historically underserved student populations, Schleicher says. (It’s too soon to know the impact of NCLB’s recent replacement, the Every Student Succeeds Act.) Schleicher says there’s also great promise in the Common Core State Standards, adopted by over 40 states, and which President-Elect Donald Trump has repeatedly called “a total disaster.”

Attendance matters. On average, 37 percent of U.S. test-takers on PISA said they had skipped at least one day of school in the two weeks prior to the exam. That’s nearly double the OECD average of 20 percent. On the science assessment, for example, U.S. students who reported skipping scored 29 points lower than their non-absent peers. The OECD average score drop was even more dramatic: a 33-point decline after adjusting for student and school socioeconomic factors — the equivalent of almost an entire year’s worth of classroom learning.

“In middle and high school, especially in subject areas like math and science, the work is highly scaffolded — if you miss even one day you can fall behind very quickly, and the more rigorous the curriculum the greater those consequences can be,” says Hedy Chang of Attendance Works, a national organization focused on addressing student absenteeism.

Educators need to identify the underlying reasons why kids skip school, Chang says. But chronic absenteeism (defined as missing at least 10 percent of school days in an academic year) is four times greater among kids struggling with poverty, Chang says. “The achievement gap is tied to socioeconomics.”