In U.S. vs. the World, the World Keeps Winning

Last week, I wrote a bit about the latest results from the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which showed U.S. fourth graders losing ground against kids in competitor nations. Well, yesterday another report came out — the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which examines high school-aged kids’ math and science literacy — and the news was bad again. (PISA, by the way, usually assesses reading in addition to math and science, but the U.S. had a bit of a test-booklet malfunction this time around, invalidating our scores. Apparently, we lag behind other nations in standardized-test quality control, too.)

Let’s look first at science literacy. In 2000, the first year the PISA assessment was conducted, U.S. students’ average science score was 499 on a scale of 0 to 1000, just about equal to the 500 average for countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of leading industrialized nations. In 2003, the next year PISA was administered, we fell further below the OECD mean of 500 with an average score of 491. Finally, in 2006 (the year covered in the latest report), we averaged 489, our lowest relative score yet.

How about mathematics literacy? In 2000, we were below the OECD average of 500, hitting 493. In 2003 we dropped further, with an average score of 483. And 2006? The OECD average was 498 and ours was 474, which, as in science, was our biggest deficit in PISA history.

So what does all this mean? As I wrote last week, one test does not a final verdict make, but combine PISA with PIRLS and other bad, recent testing results, and one can’t help but conclude that U.S. education is going in the wrong direction, and the biggest name in education reform—the No Child Left Behind Act—is a significant part of the problem.