U.S. Performance on PISA: The Rest of the Story

Today, in advance of this week’s International Summit on the Teaching Profession, Fordham is releasing a little paper by Janie Scull and me, American Achievement in International Perspective. We analyzed the recent PISA results in reading and math a number of ways, and came up with some interesting (and surprising) insights. Among them:

  • In raw numbers, the United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. (This is of course due to our large size—but explains why Americans continue to dominate prestigious universities, leading corporations, etc.)
  • Proportionally, Asian American students are the best readers in the world, and white Americans are bested only by Finns and New Zealanders.
Click to enlarge

Now for the bad news:

  • In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more low achievers than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.
  • Approximately 50 percent of black American students are low-achieving in math—a higher proportion of students than is found in any OECD country save Chile and Mexico. In reading, only Mexico does worse.

And a few interesting tidbits:

  • In both reading and math, in raw numbers, the United States produces more high-achieving Hispanic students than Asian students.
  • In both reading and math, the U.S. produces about the same number of low-achieving white students as low-achieving black students.
  • In raw numbers, there are more high-achieving African-American students than high-achieving Finns.

What to make of these findings? First, it’s obvious that America’s size alone makes it the major player at both ends of the achievement spectrum: Our top students outnumber high achievers in all other OECD countries—but our worst performers outnumber their peers in other countries, too. This situation helps to explain why, in spite of overall test scores best described as mediocre, the United States continues to send so many students to top universities and to produce so many innovative scientists and entrepreneurs. To be blunt: We’re big. Of course, so are China and India, and when they starting taking the PISA exam we might discover that their high-achieving students outnumber ours many times over.

Our large number of low-achieving students is also a critical issue. It’s not unfair to say that America’s educational problems are the world’s problems. While the same may be true for Mexico and Turkey (and for big non-OECD countries that took the PISA exam, like Brazil and Indonesia) as well, it’s hard to imagine the U.S. maintaining its economic strength—or social cohesion—while miseducating such a large number of its youth.

Finally, the mile-wide chasm that is our own domestic achievement gap cannot be denied. America’s white and Asian students perform among the word’s best; our black and Hispanic students are battling it out with OECD’s worst. Still, this report identifies an interesting wrinkle, and perhaps a ray of hope: In raw numbers, at least, our high-achieving Hispanic and black American students outnumber the high achievers of several other countries.

At the least, this indicates that they will have a seat at the international table—on prestigious college campuses, in the board room, and in the laboratory. It’s a start.

—Mike Petrilli

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