Reflections on the international PISA test scores

by David Safier

The concern over the average U.S. scores on the latest international PISA test has been far more muted this time out than usual. I'm hopeful that the viewpoints of progressive educators have finally made their way inside the mainstream vision of education, which has been dominated by the "failing schools" story coming from the conservative "education reform" movement. The fact is, a more nuanced look at this most recent set of scores as well as U.S. scores on other international exams indicates that our schools are not failing. True, they can and should do better. But failing? Far from it.

For a moment, though, let's assume our scores on the PISA test mean we're falling behind the rest of the world educationally. Instead of allowing the corporate reform/school choice/vouchers/testing crowd to interpret the reasons for our possibly poor showing, let's look at some other ways of viewing our performance.

• Our PISA scores have remained stagnant throughout the No Child Left Behind decade. The Bush era's testing and shaming has done nothing to improve our international scores.

• If you just look at U.S. schools with less than 10% of their children on free or reduced lunch, our scores would be number one in the world in science and reading and number five in mathematics. The large number of U.S. students living in poverty brings our average scores way down.

• Florida's "educational miracle," praised by Jeb Bush, the Goldwater Insitute and Arizona Republican legislators, doesn't look so miraculous in the international comparison. Florida scored below the U.S. average in math and similar to the U.S. average in science and reading. Massachusetts and Connecticut, neither of which is a model of conservative education reform, did far better.

• The U.S. model of encouraging the growth for charter schools is similar to the model followed in Sweden, the country which had the steepest decline in its PISA scores of any of the participating countries.

• The countries with the highest test scores aren't buying into the school choice model. According to Andreas Schleicher, an official with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development that administers the PISA test,

“The data shows no relation between competition between schools and the overall performance level.”

Asked afterward what the highest-performing systems had in common, Mr. Schleicher said: “High performers pay teachers more. They are also systems with a commitment to universal achievement.”

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