Back to Skills

U.S. Students and PISA: How Much Do International Rankings Matter?

Back to Skills

EWA’s 67th National Seminar starts Sunday at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, which makes this a great time to catch up on your background reading for some of the sessions. Some of the issues we’ll be talking about is how education reporters can better use student data in their stories, and the finer points of comparing achievement by U.S. students and their international counterparts. For background reading, here’s my post from December on the international PISA assessment.

There’s been little or no change in the performance of U.S. students on the latest round of the international PISA assessment, with stagnant scores in reading, mathematics, and science. With other countries pulling away at the head of the pack, America saw its overall ranking slip. Just as troubling – achievement gaps persist among students by ethnicity and socioeconomic status. At the same time, the United States continues to vastly outspend other countries on public education. The Atlantic’s headline summed it up nicely: “American Schools vs. the World: Expensive, Unequal, Bad at Math.”

PISA was created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to provide a comparable measure of public education systems around the globe. Fifteen-year-old students in 65 countries and jurisdictions are tested on their critical-thinking skills and problem-solving capabilities as well as their proficiency in core subjects. PISA also collects surveys from students and educators and in some places the parents, as well, which gives the OECD information about how schools operate and students’ home life. (For more background on PISA, check out our handy cheat sheet over at EdMedia Commons.)

Education Week’s Liana Heiten provides a thorough overview of U.S. performance, if you’re looking for the hard numbers. And here’s what U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had to say about the results:

“While we are seeing some encouraging progress on many important measures, the United States’ performance on the 2012 PISA is a picture of educational stagnation. This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators. By taking those vital steps, we will ensure all of America’s children have access to a high-quality education that prepares them for college and careers.”

What’s important to keep in mind: Correlation is not causation. We have no idea precisely why U.S. students overall are failing to make meaningful gains — although there’s plenty of speculation. Assessment data provide a snapshot of student performance at one moment in time. They don’t tell you why students are doing well or falling short. As Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center on Education Statistics (which oversees the U.S. PISA exams), said on a call with reporters Monday: You don’t look at a thermometer to figure out why it’s cold outside.

(The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute issued a stern warning Monday ahead of the PISA results, urging people to not draw hasty conclusions, going so far as to call “PISA Day” an “ideological and hyperventilated exercise.”)

Of course, that’s not going to stop people using the PISA results to bolster their own arguments, or look for patterns among the strong performers that might offer ideas for the United States to copy. To early childhood advocates like the First Five Years Fund, which is pushing hard for expanded federal funds for early learning, the evidence is clear: High-achieving countries put a greater premium on making sure their youngest students are nurtured. From Kris Perry, the group’s president:

“It is no coincidence that the countries with the strongest PISA scores also have rapidly growing economies. Global leaders recognize that in order to continue strong economic expansion, they must invest in their youngest learners. But the U.S. trails behind almost every developed country in the world when it comes to access to high-quality preschool. In fact, countries like China and India are dramatically expanding access to preschool, reflecting growing consensus that transcends political ideologies and geographic boundaries—that skills development starts at birth and lays the foundation for achievement in school, college, career and life.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the PISA results make it clear that the nation’s education policy train  – namely “a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top” is on the wrong track. From her statement:

 ”Sadly, our nation has ignored the lessons from the high-performing nations. These countries deeply respect public education, work to ensure that teachers are well-prepared and well-supported, and provide students not just with standards but with tools to meet them—such as ensuring a robust curriculum, addressing equity issues so children with the most needs get the most resources, and increasing parental involvement. None of the top-tier countries, nor any of those that have made great leaps in student performance, like Poland and Germany, has a fixation on testing like the United States does.”

Some other PISA factoids worth noting: For the first time three U.S. states – Connecticut, Florida and Massachusetts – participated in PISA as separate entities, and each paid about $600,000 to receive stand-alone scores. Students in Massachusetts and Connecticut excelled, which is little surprise given both states’ typically strong performance on other measures such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In reading, Massachusetts was topped only by Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Florida, however, lagged on the PISA. And that’s worth paying attention to, given that the Sunshine State has been a hotbed of education reform initiatives in recent years.

More than anything, PISA provides food for thought – and fodder for debate. Does this mean we should look carefully at Massachusetts’ literacy instruction to see what lessons could be learned? It couldn’t hurt. However, we also have to consider the student population that the Bay State’s schools serve – it’s generally more affluent and homogeneous than many other districts in the country. Indeed, as Orlando Sentinel reporter Leslie Postal noted in her reporting, one criticism of PISA is that it doesn’t factor in whether a state or country is serving a larger population of disadvantaged students. But that doesn’t mean comparing states to each other or to countries isn’t valid, said Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s education director and PISA coordinator. From Postal’s story:

“At the end of the day, it’s the bottom line performance that really matters,” Schleicher said in a telephone call with reporters. “Those children will have to compete in the U.S. labor market with everyone else.”Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA public editor Emily Richmond at Follow her on Twitter: @EWAEmily.