American Students Fall in International Academic Tests, Chinese Lead the Pack

Education leaders say the results are disappointing and 'lackluster.'

American students' scores dropped slightly in international academic tests in 2012.
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This story was updated at 3:45 p.m. to reflect new information

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday morning that despite incremental progress in certain aspects of education, the United States’ results on the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment are mediocre.

“The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 PISA is straightforward and stark. It is the picture of educational stagnation,” Duncan said. “The brutal truth, that urgent reality, must serve as a wakeup call against educational complacency and low expectations.

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Duncan touted the fact that the nation’s high school graduation rate this year rose to the highest rate in three decades, that college enrollment has grown, particularly for Hispanic students, and that fourth and eighth graders saw small gains in both reading and math on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, which was released Nov. 7.

But still, American students are performing far below most other developed nations on this triennial international test. In fact, they’re actually performing worse today than before. But that’s not the big problem, Duncan said. A more pressing concern, he claims, is the fact that American students are standing still, while other nations are advancing.

“In a knowledge-based, global economy, where education is more important than ever before, both to individual success and collective prosperity, our students are basically losing ground,” Duncan said. “We’re running in place, as other high performing countries start to lap us.”

“The hard truth is that the US is not among the top performing OECD nations in any subject tested by PISA,” he added.

The United States’ lack of progress is “particularly worrisome” when it comes to math, according to Angel Gurria, secretary-general of the OECD.

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Gurria said 25 percent of American students did not reach the PISA baseline for “level 2” in math proficiency, which requires using “basic algorithms” to solve problems with whole numbers, Gurria said. Comparatively, only about 10 percent of students in countries such as Canada, Korea, Shanghai, and Singapore, failed to reach that benchmark.

In areas like top-performer Shanghai, students’ math scores are the equivalent of two-and-a-half years of schooling ahead of students in Massachusetts, the highest performing state in the country.

Meanwhile, only 2 percent of American students reached the highest level of math performance, compared to an average of 3 percent across OECD countries, and up to 30 percent of students in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Chinese Taipei.

“This is not only a great loss to the American economy, it’s obviously a very great consequence to people’s future,” Gurria said. “Poor educational performance limits access to employment and widens social inequality.”

Still, some skeptics say that inequality is one reason for America’s low scores on the PISA tests.

“They acknowledge the performance of America’s 15-year-olds as mediocre, but they say that’s only because our average scores are dragged down by the large number of poor, minority students in the United States,” Duncan said.

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Although it is “absolutely true” that the United States has “large, unacceptable, deeply troubling achievement gaps,” Duncan said, that difference in background does not explain why some types of American students still score below their peers in other countries.

White students in the United States perform better than minority students on the PISA test in math, but still fall behind students in other education systems in places such as Shanghai, Singapore, Korea, and Vietnam.

“While our poverty rate is about 22 percent, in Vietnam, the poverty rate is about 79 percent,” Duncan said. “The real educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods. It’s about many kids, in many neighborhoods. The PISA results underscore that educational shortcomings in the US are not just the problems of other people’s children.”

Updated 12/03/13: This article was updated to include comments from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurria.