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Lessons Learned from PISA

When results from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released in December, no one in the United States seemed too happy—or surprised, for that matter. The assessment, which samples 15-year-olds from 65 countries in reading, math, and science, showed that American scores were stagnant from the test's last administration, in 2009.

While scores remained flat, the U.S. fell behind in rankings. American students ranked roughly 17th in reading and 21st in science in 2012 (down from 14th and 17th, respectively, in 2009), with scores in the middle of the pack. In math, U.S. students not only scored below the PISA average but also saw their ranking drop from 25th to 26th.

High-scoring students hailed mostly from Asian countries where, by many standards, education is more rigorous than in the United States. Shanghai claimed the top spot, but many observers doubt the region is a fair representation for all of China, which does not participate in the test as a whole. Other high achievers included Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, and Finland.

What do the results mean for school administrators? "Most communities are less concerned about how their kids are doing relative to Shanghai than they are relative to other districts in their immediate area," says Daniel Domenech, executive director of AASA.

However, for students to compete in a global economy, there are some lessons that can be gleaned from top scorers. Almost all have nationalized education systems, as opposed to the 50 independent systems that exist in the U.S. While Common Core will not centralize education in this way in the U.S., many supporters hope that it will equalize-and raise-expectations nationwide.

The top scorers also value teacher training. "They are much more focused on ­teacher development and improvement," says Domenech. "We don't do that. We go the route of evaluating teachers so we can fire the ones that are incompetent."

Among other key findings, the results showed the impact of poverty, revealing vast disparities between affluent districts and states in the U.S. (which would have singularly ranked with high-performing countries) and lower-income counterparts. "The differential is poverty," says Domenech. "All you need to see is the zip code and you can predict the performance and achievement level."

—Kim Greene


Winter 2014

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