Education Week - January 8, 2014 - (Page 20)
Why the U.S. Results on PISA Matter
By Eric A. Hanushek
n 2012, 65 nations and education systems participated in
the Program for International Student Assessment. These
tests, covering mathematics, science, and reading, provide
direct international comparisons of skills. Sadly for our nation,
the recently released results are sobering.
According to PISA, the United States placed significantly
below the average for member-nations in the Organization
for Economic Cooperation and Development for
mathematics-and significantly worse than the OECD distribution
at both ends of the assessment spectrum, with more low performers
and fewer high performers.
The U.S. math performance is not statistically different from that of
Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic,
Lithuania, Sweden, and Hungary-not the most sought-after
group of countries for comparison's sake.
More disturbing, U.S. students' scores have been stagnant for the past
decade. Since 2003, the United States has made virtually no gains, even
as a range of countries made substantial ones.
The most rapid PISA gains were made in very low-performing countries,
such as Qatar and Kazakhstan. Yet some higher-performing nations
also made substantial advances: Israel, Singapore, Italy, Poland, and
Germany. Poland, for example, steadily improved over the past decade
and now ranks eighth within the OECD (14th among all 65 participating
countries or education systems).
In the simplest terms, even among high-performing countries, change
for the better is possible.
A number of commentators have tried to counsel ignoring the results,
and their misleading arguments-These test scores really do not matter-
* Criticism One:We have a strong economy; in other words, we are not
being pulled down by our schools.
Indeed, we have had strong growth over the 30 years since A Nation at Risk
first warned that schools were endangering our economy. But we also have
the world's best economic system and institutions, and this has protected
us from the deficiencies of our schools. It is also likely that we will not be so
sheltered in the future and will have to rely on our skills (human capital).
My analysis, with Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann, shows that
long-term growth is closely related to the skills measured by assessments
such as PISA. From historical experience, the differences in potential economic
outcomes from improvements comparable to those seen in other countries are
many multiples of the total cost of the 2008 recession until now. Moreover,
the increased taxes and greater government intrusion necessarily implied
by continuing U.S. deficits and long-term imbalances of Social Security and
Medicare will weaken our economic institutions.
At the same time, other countries have emulated many of the features of
our economic institutions while producing improved human capital, which
implies we may no longer be the world's leader in innovation in the future.
* Criticism Two: The U.S. ranking is completely explained by poverty;
we should be fixing poverty, not our schools.
Various (poor-quality) analyses have suggested that, because the United
States has a higher poverty rate than other industrialized countries, our
low international-assessment scores can be explained by poverty.
Indeed, in response to the PISA 2012 scores, the American Association
of School Administrators (now called AASA, the School Superintendents
Association) issued the following statement: "The problem we find in
American education isn't that schools are 'falling behind,' it is that schools
are 'pulling apart.' Poverty in America is the real issue behind today's
education gap, and it means students can experience different education
trajectories because of where they live." This is the association of school
superintendents, arguing that it is poverty and not their schools to blame
for poor achievement.
But if the superintendents' group is correct, the United States would
turn out the same share of high-performing students as other countries.
To the contrary, only 9 percent of U.S. students perform at the highest
proficiency levels in math (Levels 5 and 6), far below the 20 percent to 30
percent performing at that level in countries such as South Korea, Japan,
Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Canada turns out almost twice as
many high fliers as the United States.
Moreover, if an income gap makes the United States unique, the percentage
of American students performing well below proficiency in math
should be higher in this nation than in countries with comparable average
test scores. But that's not the case.
In simplest terms,
both top and
students in other
Why Arne Duncan's PISA Comments Miss the Mark
By Robert Weintraub & David Weintraub
ear Secretary Duncan:
The U.S. Supreme Court justice
and polymath Oliver Wendell
Holmes Jr. reportedly said: "I would
not give a fig for the simplicity this
side of complexity, but I would give
my life for the simplicity on the
other side of complexity." It's an im-
portant statement in the context of school reform today.
The results of the 2012 Program for International Student
Assessment, or PISA, were released last month. Mr.
Duncan, you stood with Angel Gurria, the secretary general
of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,
which oversees PISA, and declared that the results
for the United States "are straightforward and stark:
It is a picture of educational stagnation." When the results
of the 2009 PISA were released, you said: "Americans need
to wake up to this educational reality-instead of napping
at the wheel while emerging competitors prepare their
students for economic leadership." For these comments,
Justice Holmes would not even give you a fig.
As a father and son who have devoted a collective
45 years as rather passionate teachers and leaders in
our public schools, we feel great dissonance when we
hear the incessant critique of our failing schools, failing
teachers, and failing school leaders. And, as educators
who have always valued and emphasized depth
of thinking in our teaching, we are disappointed in
your superficial and simplistic interpretation of these
scores. The scores to which you respond are the average
scores. As in 2009, a much more detailed body of
data is released several weeks after the average scores
are unveiled. The average scores grab the headlines,
but the disaggregated scores tell a much different
Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein, in their
on this flawed
snapshot of our
is much better
January 2013 report titled "What Do International
Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance?,"
studied disaggregated data from the 2009 PISA. Their
report for the Economic Policy Institute revealed
important insights that might cause you to be more
careful in your pronouncements.
For example, 38 percent of American students
who sat for the 2009 PISA were from the two lowest
socioeconomic categories. That is by far the largest
percentage of low-income test-takers among our
comparative nations. And without getting into a
debate with the "no excuses" crowd, it is incontrovertible
that students from low-income families
and communities throughout the world score far
lower than students from more-advantaged families
and communities on these tests.
In 2009, the United States had the highest pov-
erty rate-22 percent-of any of the comparative
OECD nations, yet our PISA sample in 2009 included
38 percent low-income students. If our sampling was
so skewed, what might the Shanghai or Singapore
samples look like? It gives us little confidence in the
validity of this test. And it doesn't take a statistics
genius to predict that our average scores will be affected
by these facts-and not in a positive way.
Mr. Secretary, you do not include this kind of important
information when you speak about our schools
and our results. You settle for the simplicity of average
scores-simplicity on this side of complexity.
So how do our students' scores look when we
compare them in a fairer, disaggregated manner?
Much better. In fact, if you look carefully at our stu-
20 | EDUCATION WEEK | January 8, 2014 | www.edweek.org/go/commentary
dents' scores in comparison with those of countries
with somewhat similar socioeconomic profiles-
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom-our
lower-income students score the highest among
these nations, on both the 2009 PISA reading and
math tests. American schools with fewer than 10
percent low-income students score at the very top.
American schools with fewer than 25 percent lowincome
students are near the top. The achievement
gaps on the reading and math tests-between upper-income
students and lower-income students-
are smaller in the United States than in France,
Germany, and the United Kingdom.
The actual news about American schools, even on
this flawed snapshot of our achievement, is much
better than the misleading headlines, but you don't
talk about this. Again, you settle for the simplicity of
average scores. The press regularly communicates
your unrelenting message that our mediocre schools
are placing our nation's economic well-being at risk.
Then, grounded in your incomplete interpretation
of the test scores-and the accompanying denigration
of American schools, American teachers,
and American school leaders-our public schools,
with your blessing, continue to be subjected to a
wrong-headed, oppressive, top-down, one-size-fitsall
school reform environment. The new Common
Core State Standards and the alignment of instruction
to the standards, the time-consuming annual
standardized tests to assess student learning and
teacher performance, a cumbersome teacher-evaluation
system, competitive-compensation systems,
and data-driven everything ... these are your instruments
for school improvement, handed down
to those of us at the schoolhouse.
Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Education Week - January 8, 2014
Education Week - January 8, 2014
State Legislators Fire Up Engines
Inspections Piloted for Teacher Prep
Student Views Shifting on Risks Of Marijuana
L.A. School Bridges Home-School Gap
InBloom Sputters as Data Privacy Hits the Spotlight
News in Brief
Fariña to Lead N.Y.C. Public Schools
Judge Censures District’s Use of ‘Hess Report’
Los Angeles, D.C. Outshine Urban Peers in NAEP Gains
Blogs of the Week
Cloud Computing Expands, Raising Data-Privacy Concerns
Congressional Appropriators Turn To K-12 Spending Details
Rural Districts Win Big in Race To Top Awards
States Split Latest Pot of Early-Learning Aid
Blogs of the Week
ERIC A. HANUSHEK: Why the U.S. Results on PISA Matter
ROBERT WEINTRAUB & DAVID WEINTRAUB: Why Arne Duncan’s PISA Comments Miss the Mark
JACK DALE: Learning From a Test
TopSchoolJobs Recruitment Marketplace
PETER W. COOKSON JR.: Looking for Equity on the Yellow School Bus
Education Week - January 8, 2014