With the 2012 PISA results set to be released on Tuesday you will probably hear a lot of doom and gloom about how the U.S. doesn’t fair well on international assessments. You’ll probably be bombarded with references to the 2009 PISA results showing that U.S. students ranked 24th and 19th in math and science respectively.
Such statistics are true but you should be warned such statistics don’t tell the whole truth. While PISA results should not be ignored they only tell part of the story of how U.S. schools compare to schools around the world. There are a myriad of other indicators that are useful in comparing U.S. schools internationally. Yet, PISA results get all the headlines because of our mediocre performance especially in math and science. But when you take a broader look at how U.S. schools perform, you’ll see our schools compare more favorably to other countries than PISA results would suggest.
U.S. students compare well in reading
PISA’s math and science results often overlook the fact that U.S. 15-year olds fair much better on PISA’s reading assessment. Compared to the 64 other countries that participated in PISA just 9 countries significantly outperformed the U.S. in reading. The U.S. compares even better at the 4th grade level where just 5 of 57 participating countries performed significantly higher than the U.S. according to the 2011 PIRLS report.
U.S. students compare more favorably in science in the earlier grades
While U.S. 15-year olds rank among the middle of the pack on PISA’s science assessment, U.S. 4th and 8th graders compare much more favorably to their international peers. On the 2011 TIMSS assessment just 6 of 57 countries significantly outperformed U.S fourth graders. At the eighth grade level just 12 of 56 countries significantly outperformed the U.S.
U.S. 4th and 8th graders are gaining on the international leaders
It seems to be an all too well kept secret that our nation’s fourth graders score within the top 10 of countries in math. According to the 2011 TIMSS, just 8 countries significantly outperformed the U.S. on the 4th grade math assessment. Our eighth graders performed nearly as well by being outperformed by just 11 of 56 countries. Keep in mind, that Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana were considered ‘counties’ for the purposes of this analysis and were among the 11 ‘countries’ that outperformed the U.S. so only 7 actual countries outperformed the U.S.
The U.S. has broken into the top 10 in math due to impressive gains over the past two decades. Since TIMSS was first administered in 1995 the scores for U.S. 4th graders improved by 23 points. Strong gains were also made during this time period by U.S. 8th graders whose scores improved by 17 points. The gains made at both grade levels are among the greatest gains made during this time period.
More work to be done
When taking a broader look at how the U.S. compares international the U.S. fairs much better than PISA results suggest. However, the results also show the U.S. has much more work to be done to perform among the world leaders. As the TIMSS results show, our schools are not only up for the challenge to thrust our schools to be among the world leaders but have already taken major strides to do so. – Jim Hull