U.S. students posted average scores in reading and science and below-average scores in math on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an international exam administered to 15-year-olds in 65 education systems across the globe. In reading, U.S. students outperformed their international peers from 34 education systems. In math, the U.S. average score was higher than scores in 26 education systems. Asian countries excelled on the exam, with Chinese students from Shanghai posting the highest scores in all three subject areas.
Many pundits are lamenting that the United States’ performance is about the same as previous years. But this lack of growth is not surprising given the size and diversity of the country, as well as our decentralized approach to education improvement. However, this PISA exam is the last one before the Common Core State Standards take hold in a majority of states, which means that U.S. performance could improve on subsequent tests. PISA’s math assessment emphasizes translating real-world situations into mathematical terms—a focus of the Common Core math standards. In addition, the Common Core assessments currently under development are computer-based and will feature more complex questions that will require students to apply higher-level critical thinking and problem-solving skills. U.S. students may do better on future PISA exams simply because they will have had more exposure to the computer-based testing format and the types of test questions emphasized on the exam.
Of course, it’s near impossible to draw clear connections between specific education reforms and test results but that doesn’t stop the pundits from trying. Three states—Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Florida—participated in PISA as separate entities this year, and their results are a mixed bag for the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top initiative (Both Florida and Massachusetts received Race to the Top awards.). Although Massachusetts students scored above both the national and PISA averages in all three subjects, Florida students scored below those averages in math and science and at the U.S. and PISA averages in reading. Such mixed results for Race to the Top award-winners suggests that their federal grant goals remain more aspirational than realistic. Meanwhile, Connecticut—which didn’t receive any Race to the Top funding—did almost as well as Massachusetts, outperforming both averages in all three subjects.