If recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress left the public dismayed about the academic performance of U.S. students, Tuesday’s release of scores showing how 15-year-olds compare to their peers around the world aren’t likely to cheer them up.
Teens who took assessments in reading, math and science literacy on the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment showed no improvement, compared to 2015. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which includes 37 member countries, gives the assessment every three years, and last year, 600,000 15-year-olds from 79 countries and economies participated.
While U.S. students rank higher in comparison to other countries than in previous years, Peggy Carr, the associate commissioner of the assessment division at the National Center for Education Statistics, said those results are not necessarily a "cause for celebration."
The reason is because the scores in other countries dropped, compared to 2015, which is "not exactly the way you want to improve your ranking," she said.
The U.S., however, was not alone in showing neither improvement nor a decline in scores. Performance was flat in most of the participating countries, with only four education systems showing growth in reading, 13 in math and five in science.
Scores of low performers slipping
In reading, U.S. students scored 505 on the 0-1,000 scale, above the OECD average of 487 but lower than the average scores in eight countries, including Canada, Finland and education systems in China. Comparing results by free and reduced-price lunch status, students in schools with the lowest percentage of eligible students scored more than 100 points higher than those from schools where more than 75% of students are eligible.
Though the top-performing U.S. students in reading rank third in the world, Carr stressed the scores of struggling readers are sliding. "It’s a pattern we’ve seen in NAEP, and now we’re seeing it here," she said.
The report notes the way PISA assesses reading has changed since 2009 to include multiple texts and to reflect the "information-rich digital world" in which students live.
"While the availability of multiple sources does not necessarily imply greater difficulty, including multiple-source units helped to expand the range of higher-level reading processes and strategies measured by PISA," the authors write. The reading assessment was also adaptive, meaning the prompts adjust to students's answers. The other subject areas will be adaptive in the future.
In math, the average score for U.S. students was 478, below the OECD average of 489 as well as the average scores in 30 other countries. "We’re struggling in math in comparison to our competitors around the world," Carr said. "This is a pattern we're not surprised by."
As with trends in NAEP, the results show in both reading and math that top-performing students continue to improve, while those at the lowest level have not since 2015.
In science literacy — described as the "ability to engage with science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen” — the opposite trend shows up. Over time, since 2006, the gap between the lowest- and highest-performing students has narrowed slightly, with lower-performing students showing improvement and the scores among those at the top levels remaining consistent.
In science, the average score for U.S. students was 502, higher than the OECD average of 489 and lower than the average scores in 11 countries. In 2015, the U.S. scored just above the OECD average in math (496) and reading (497), but below the 490 average in science at 470.
Inspiring policy and practice
PISA focuses on students ranging from 15 years, 3 months to 16 years, 2 months rather than a particular grade. “Grade levels are not good indicators of cognitive development,” Andreas Schleicher, who coordinates the PISA program as director for education and skills at OECD, said last month in a webinar previewing the results.
The assessment focuses on applying knowledge in the real world and is slightly less challenging than NAEP, Carr said.
Schleicher noted PISA has led to some significant changes in education systems around the world.
“PISA has inspired a lot of policy and practice,” he said, often beginning with educators and policymakers traveling to other top-performing countries to study their school systems. “PISA doesn’t tell anybody what to do, but it tells what everybody else has been doing.”
In his country, Germany, policymakers looked at the experiences of other countries related to closing the achievement gap, especially between immigrant and non-immigrant students, he said. Ten years later, the gap had been reduced by 50%.
In the U.S., the National Center on Education and the Economy has led the work of examining other top-performing education systems to find practices that can be implemented here. NCEE founder Marc Tucker made sobering remarks about the 2018 PISA results.
“China is now poised to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy," he said in a press release. "It is hard to see how the United States can compete with a far larger country that has a much better educated workforce that charges much less than we do for labor."
PISA has also “inspired the introduction of formula-based funding,” Schleicher said.
When the program started in 2000, most countries didn’t differentiate funding levels based on students’ needs. Now, he said, many nations have “quite sophisticated formulas” determining which students and schools need more resources. Similarly, countries have moved “away from broad-brush policies” toward more attention to the context in which students attend school
The 2018 assessment also included a section on global competence and an optional section on financial literacy, but those results — along with an analysis of how policies relate to outcomes — won’t be released until next year.
Preparations for the next rounds of PISA are underway. Thirty-six OECD member countries and possibly more than 50 additional countries are expected to participate in the 2021 assessment. In addition to the typical subject areas, the assessment will include a focus on math and a new “creative thinking” portion.
The 2024 assessment will include a focus on science and an optional section on foreign language.
But Schleicher also suggested future administrations of the program could look very different. First, the complexity of problems may increase, he said, and students might have access to “a wider range of tools that are a part of their reality now.”
While looking up an answer is still considered cheating, “I could imagine we might want to give students access to the internet,” he said, adding that tests might measure how students are able to extrapolate from the information they find. “Why would we want to test things that students look up in Google?”