The new PISA scores are here, the new PISA scores are here! As we all know by now, the latest edition of PISA is now out, and it isn’t the prettiest of pictures. Much of the day of/day after debate seems to be focused on the performance of China, which entered this year’s countdown at the top of the charts. While some may want to fault the sample size (of Shanghai) or look for other reasons to discount China’s positioning, there is no getting around the truth. The students in China who took the test did better than the students in other countries who took the test. Blame cherrypicking of students, overprepping for the tests, or a host of other excuses, but Chinese test takers still did better than everyone else.
And what about the dear ol’ U.S. of A? Again, we get to settle for middle of the pack, with an undistinguished placement for all categories. Be it reading, math, or science, we are consistently average (unless you look at math, where we are now below average).
Thankfully, the US Department of Education did not try to sugar coat this or claim victories for an incredibly modest gain in science. Instead, EdSec Duncan declared the PISA results a “wake-up call” and a “hard truth” that we are being passed by.
Hopefully, Duncan and company are successful in using such test scores to push for more substantive, results-based school improvement efforts. But these numbers — and the numbers of recent years previous — paint a very grim picture. We are caught in an international achievement gap. Each year, we take great pride in the fact that we have “held our own” or managed to gain a point or two in a given subject. At the same time, our international counterparts are making significant gains of their own, increasing the space between their students and ours. China taking the top spot its first year in the competition merely magnifies our mediocrity and this very real achievement gap.
As a nation, we continue to focus on how our students do against students in other states. We play games with our state standards and the resultant tests (a practice hopefully ending by most with the adoption of common core) to show increasing numbers of proficient students. But in the process, it doesn’t matter that a 10th grader today is proficient if he can do the work of a 7th grader of 25 years ago. We just want that proficient label, declaring victory once we can apply it to our schools and our students, standards and actual knowledge be damned.
International benchmarks such as PISA and TIMSS force us to compete on a level, fair, and painfully honest playing field. We can’t adjust the standards and rubrics to meet our regional needs. In many ways, these scores are far more accurate indicators of our actual student achievement than anything one sees on a state exam.
And that is why these results are so discouraging. We are fighting to tread water (despite state numbers showing strong gains for most in recent years) as our competitors are building 21st century speedboats. As other nations do it better and more effectively, we run a real risk of being left behind, with nothing but excuses and substandard state exams to keep us warm at night.
At the end of the day, this isn’t an issue that China (or Finland or Korea or Singapore or Canada or New Zealand or Estonia or countless others) is doing better than the United States. The issue is that we are failing our students. The international achievement gap is not a measure of student failures. It is a measure of the failures of the U.S. public school system. Unless we fight for real, systemic change, all we are doing is teaching our students a new stroke by which to tread water.