Digging into PISA Results

By: Bob Wise


Most of the headlines following the latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) focused on the fact that the performance of 15-year-olds in the United States has remained flat for the past decade while the performance of their peers in other nations improved. As a result, the United States is now ranked 26th out of 34 industrialized countries in mathematics, 17th in reading, and 21st in science.

At first glance, it might seem as if the PISA results are not that instructive. After all, U.S. educators don’t need yet another test to tell them that their students rank below their international peers. But PISA doesn’t just tell us where U.S. students rank internationally, it also offers important insights into policies and practices that can inform educational policy going forward.

One specific challenge for the United States that emerged from the PISA results is the nation’s declining performance in an important area: the proportion of students who performed at the top levels.

As an Alliance for Excellent Education report (http://all4ed.org/?p=18019) that analyzes the PISA results finds, 8.8% of U.S. 15-year-olds performed at the top levels in mathematics, compared with 10.1% in 2003; 7.9% performed at the top levels in reading, compared with 12.2% in 2000; and 7.5% performed at top levels in science, down from 9.1% in 2006 (that decline was not statistically significant).

By contrast, several high-performing nations had far higher proportions of students at the top levels, and many increased the proportions of students who scored high. Shanghai-China had far and away the most high performers, with 55.4% at top levels in mathematics, 25.1% in reading, and 27.2% in science. Singapore, Korea, Japan, Canada, and Switzerland, among other nations, all had considerably more students at the top levels than did the United States. Poland’s proportion of top performers rose substantially, from 10.1% to 16.7% in mathematics and 5.9% to 10% in reading.

The fact that so few U.S. students reached top levels—and that the number who have done so is dropping—is worrisome. These levels indicate that students can use their knowledge to think critically, solve complex and
novel problems, and communicate effectively—precisely the deeper learning competencies that are essential for their future. Unfortunately, they are also the skills that far too many U.S. students lack—a fact that the nation’s teachers already understand and are working to correct.

What the PISA results do not capture is all the hard work that educators, administrators, and students are currently doing to improve U.S. performance in the next round of PISA exams, in 2015. The Common Core State Standards in English language arts and mathematics place a strong emphasis on core content knowledge as well as the ability to use knowledge to think critically, solve problems, and communicate effectively.

The challenge for the United States is to implement the Common Core State Standards and assessments effectively so that teachers receive the support they need to teach those abilities effectively, and all students have the support they need to learn them. Improving PISA performance, and more important, improving the nation’s civic and economic strength, depends on whether the nation can meet that challenge.


Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, Washington, D.C. alliance@all4ed.org


This article was published in AMLE Magazine, March 2014.

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