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December 7, 2016

PISA scores remain stagnant for U.S. students

The results of the latest PISA or the Program for International Student Assessment are in and as usual, we have an interpretation of the highlights for you.

If you recall, PISA is designed to assess not just students’ academic knowledge but their application of that knowledge and is administered to 15-year-olds across the globe every three years by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in coordination with the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Each iteration of the PISA has a different focus and the 2015 version honed in on science, though it also tested math and reading proficiency among the roughly half-million teens who participated in this round. So, how did American students stack up?

In short, our performance was average in reading and science and below average in math, compared to the 35 other OECD member countries.  Specifically, the U.S. ranked 19th in science, 20th in reading and 31st in math. But PISA was administered in countries beyond OECD members and among that total group of 70 countries and education systems (some regions of China are assessed as separate systems), U.S. teens ranked 25th in science, 22nd in reading, and 40th in math.  Since 2012, scores were basically the same in science and reading, but dropped 11 points in math.

PISA Science

Before you get too upset over our less-than-stellar performance, though, there are a few things to take into account.  First, scores overall have fluctuated in all three subjects.  Some of the top performers such as South Korea and Finland have seen 20-30 point drops in math test scores from 2003 to 2015 at the same time that the U.S. saw a 13 point drop.  Are half of the countries really declining in performance, or could it be a change in the test, or a change in how the test corresponds with what and how material is taught in schools?

Second, the U.S. has seen a large set of reforms over the last several years, which have disrupted the education system.  Like many systems, a disruption may cause a temporary drop in performance, but eventually stabilize.  Many teachers are still adjusting to teaching the Common Core Standards and/or Next Generation Science Standards; the 2008 recession caused shocks in funding levels that we’re still recovering from; many school systems received waivers from No Child Left Behind which substantially change state- and school-level policies.  And, in case you want to blame Common Core for lower math scores, keep in mind that not all test-takers live in states that have adopted the Common Core, and even if they do, some have only learned under the new standards for a year or two.  Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the PISA test for the OECD, predicts that the Common Core Standards will eventually yield positive results for the U.S., but that we must be patient.


Student scores are correlated to some degree with student poverty and the concentration of poverty in some schools.  Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are 2.5 times more likely to perform poorly than advantaged students.  Schools with fewer than 25 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch (about half of all students nationwide are eligible) would be 2nd in science, 1st in reading, and 11th in math out of all 70 countries.  At the other end of the spectrum, schools with at least 75 percent of students who are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, 44th in science, 42nd in reading, and 47th in math.  Compared only to OECD countries, high-poverty schools would only beat four countries in science, four countries in reading, and five in math.

Score differences for different races in the U.S. show similar disparities.

How individual student groups would rank compared to the 70 education systems tested:

Science Reading Math
White 5th 4th 20th
Black 49th 44th 51st
Hispanic 40th 37th 44th
Asian 8th 2nd 20th
Mixed Race 19th 20th 38th



Despite the disparities in opportunity for low-income students, the number of low-income students who performed better than expected increased by 12 percentage points since 2006, to 32 percent.  The amount of variation attributable to poverty decreased from 17 percent in 2006 to 11 percent in 2015, meaning that poverty became less of a determining factor in how a student performed.


America is one of the largest spenders on education, as we should be, given our high per capita income.  Many have bemoaned that we should be outscoring other nations based on our higher spending levels, but the reality is that high levels of childhood poverty and inequitable spending often counteract the amount of money put into the system.  For more info on this, see our previous blogpost.

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