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Poverty and the PISA: Aggregating for Economics

I got a lot of email after last week's post, in which I talked about the results of the Program for International Student Assessment--PISA--and how American 15-year-olds were falling behind their international peers (with whom they had previously been comparable or surpassing) in math, science, and reading. Readers made some interesting points, some of which I'd like to reiterate here:

- While "the educational sky is not falling" (I like this phrase), in that American students have never done particularly well, historically, on international tests, our economy continues to grow and innovate.

- Nevertheless, the fact a growing number of peer nations are surpassing us on these tests does warrant concern, as it indicates that American students are making comparatively insufficient gains in 21st century skills that will be necessary in a global economy.

- The results are interesting as far as they provide us data on our "standing" compared to other nations; however, they are less informative in telling us why. The study "does not support a causal inference," according to Jack Buckley, the commissioner for the National Center for Education Statistics. And any large-scale initiative to resolve discrepancies between American scores and those of peer nations would need more than causal inference to support it.

- When scores are aggregated to reflect poverty, American students in schools where less than 10% of the population is on free lunch are first in the world in reading and science, and fifth in the world in math, indicating that the strongest implications of PISA data are not about American achievement as a whole, but about the adverse effects of poverty on student achievement.

So what initiatives do the aggregated data suggest might ameliorate US scores on the whole? Diane Ravitch suggests some in her book Reign of Error, which include: broadly available prenatal care; Head Start programs; small classes; nutritious lunches; after school enrichment programs; availability of high-interest books and promotion of literacy; eyeglasses, asthma medication, etc. If we work to alleviate the effects of poverty, the PISA scores should take care of themselves.

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The opinions expressed in View From the Bronx: An Urban Teacher's Perspective are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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