The results of the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment are being seized on by reformers as further evidence that schools in the U.S. are hopelessly failing. The closely watched test of about 510,000 15-year-olds from 65 countries and locales shows that scores of our students have been essentially flat ever since the early 2000s, despite the sharp increase in spending on education.
Yet there is another side to the story that is given short shrift ("Even Gifted Students Can't Keep Up," The New York Times, Dec. 15). It has little to do with the admittedly stepchild status of gifted students in this country. Instead, it's about the role that poverty plays in outcomes. About 6,000 randomly selected students from 161 public and private schools from the U.S. participated in the latest test.
When their performance is scrutinized, it shows a clear and disturbing pattern. Schools with less than a 10 percent poverty rate ranked the U.S. near the top of the pile in reading. In contrast, schools with a poverty rate of between 50 and 75 percent dropped the U.S. toward the bottom in reading. In the past, whenever poverty was cited as an explanation for the achievement of students, it was called an excuse. But the data from PISA, which requires students to apply their knowledge to real life situations, call into question that allegation. Just as gravity is not an excuse for why objects fall to the ground, poverty cannot be written off.
The numbers explain why. The U.S. has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the industrialized world, according to UNICEF. Only Mexico is worse, but it's debatable if Mexico qualifies as industrial. At last count by the Census Bureau, the rate was a little over 20 percent and growing. It's not surprising, therefore, that poor children enter kindergarten already three months behind the average in reading and math, and never catch up.
That's because the best teachers are not miracle workers. They have their students for only a small portion of the day. The rest of the time, their students return to homes and neighborhoods, where whatever is learned in class is either reinforced or vitiated. The net effect is reflected in all standardized tests. But tests of international competition such as PISA, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) attract the greatest attention because of their alleged importance for the economic future of this country.
Nevertheless, it's a stretch to believe that standardized tests have the practical importance that reformers argue. They can partly measure knowledge and skills that are important for making American firms more competitive. But the honesty of capital markets, corporate accountability and fiscal policy play an even greater role.
The former minister of Education of Singapore, a country that consistently ranks high in science and math, put it bluntly about education in the U.S.: "Unless you are comfortably middle class or richer, you get an education that is truly second-rate by any standards. Apart from issues of fairness, what this means is that you never really access the talent of poor, bright kids." Notice the inclusion of "poor."
If the performance of students on standardized tests is nearly as crucial as reformers maintain, it's time to ask what is being done to address the effects of poverty. This will require putting aside our anger and frustration over the glacial pace of improvement in schools serving disadvantaged students, and asking instead what steps can be taken to improve the lives of these students outside of school. More money alone will not solve the problem, but if spent wisely it can help.