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PISA Scores: What Do They Show?

According to scores on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which were released today, American students are lagging behind their global peers in science and math. Some 6,100 American 15-year-olds took the test, alongside global peers from 65 countries. Distressingly, 29 countries had higher math scores than those of the US, 22 had higher science scores, and 19 had higher reading scores. Furthermore, only 9% of US students scored in the top two levels of proficiency in math, compared with an average of 13% across industrialized nations.

Earlier this year I wrote about the adult version of this test, which showed that American grown-ups similarly lag behind their nation-wide peers in abstract thinking. Low-performing parents were, in turn, more likely to have low-performing children of their own; lack of parental education was deemed the most difficult obstacle to socio-economic advancement. As a teacher, I see this phenomenon on the ground-level: Parents with lacking or incomplete education have more difficulties with everything from navigating bureaucracy of school enrollment, to helping kids with assignments, to fostering an environment that promotes literacy and educational attainment within their homes. The result, of course, is lower educational attainment (and lower scores on tests like PISA, for whatever they're worth.)

To that end, its worth noting that many "education leader" countries like Canada, Finland (which experienced a slight drop, oddly), Germany, the Netherlands and South Korea do more to ameliorate child poverty than America does, potentially cutting multi-generations of low academic achievement in ways that we have yet to implement (or have not implemented since the "Great Society" programs were cut in the '80s.)

One point worth mentioning (which Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, has already pointed out): A decade of top-down "education reform," starting with No Child Left Behind and continuing through Race to the Top, has yielded absolutely no improvements. US students' scores are stagnant, and we're left in the dust by our global peers. Though "ed reform" apologists will cite this study as further evidence that American education is in crisis, the reality is that the proposed reforms--incessant standardized testing, punitive evaluation systems for teachers (which are disconnected from good or creative pedagogic "practice"), shutting down schools, privatizing education, disenfranchising experienced teachers, and implementing curriculum changes like Common Core--have, when viewed in the best light, failed to enable American students to advance as promised, and when viewed in the worst, kept them from keeping pace with their global peers.

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