PISA scores open a new discussion in American education

By Maddy Longwell

Staff Writer

On Tuesday, Dec. 6, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released the latest scores on a test that is widely regarded as one of the most important for determining a country’s quality of education. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a test taken around the world by 15-year old students every three years. The test aims to measure a students critical thinking and problem solving ability, and does not test them on material they are able to study for ahead of time.

Student scores for the international PISA exam were released Tuesday. Source: Associated Press

The results of PISA have helped identify some of the best education systems in the world, in 2000 Finland topped this list, and in 2016 it was Singapore. PISA results often rekindle important discussions in American education policy. As in past years, the United States did not make the list of ten highest scoring countries in any of the three sections: mathematics, science, or reading. In fact, the U.S. math score was well below the OECD average with a score declining from 476 to 470 on the last two PISA tests.

The PISA scores released in 2016 are the first since the adoption of Common Core standards across the United States. While experts believe that the effect of Common Core on PISA tests will not be apparent for another few years, many realize that PISA scores are made up of students in states that opted in and out of the Common Core standards.

Not only does the United States rank among the lowest of the developed countries participating in PISA, but it also reflects an education system largely determined by socioeconomic status. In 2015, socioeconomic status accounted for 11 percent of the variance in American students scores. In contrast, socioeconomic status accounts for only 8 percent of the variance in Estonian student scores, but 20 percent for students in France.

In an analysis by education policy expert Amanda Ripley for the New York Times “Upshot,” Ripley commented on some of the other factors impacting the difference in success between American students and their international peers. In other countries, Ripley claims, teachers are more widely respected and the profession is more competitive. This is demonstrated both though pay and teacher education. In countries with higher-scoring PISA students, teachers are often paid much more than they are on average in the United States. Additionally, education degrees in high-scoring PISA countries are much more competitive. In Singapore, all of the nations teachers are educated at the National Institute of Education, which is extremely selective.

The renewed education debate could not come at a more controversial time. As the Obama Administration has pushed for the adoption and support of common core standards in its last few weeks, attention has turned to the future of American education policy, which lies with President Elect Donald Trump and his appointed Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

DeVos, like other conservative leaders, opposes the Common Core, which appears to be one policy to potentially be repealed under a new administration.