Global Test Scores are In. You Want the Good or Bad News First?


December 3, 2013 by gregrabidoux2013

kids studying

It’s been a grueling 15 minutes studying, time for a twitter break.

Since I always try but often fail at seeing the positive in things, let me share the good news first. International test scores on science, math and reading are in for teens (ages 15-19) from 65 nations representing 85% of the world’s economy. A little more than a half a million kids (510,000) sat down recently for 2 hours to show how much (or how little) they knew on core subjects that just about the whole world recognizes as important.

The Good News? US teens did not show much slippage and even some slight improvement overall. Sweet. That deserves a video-game break, right Mom? Hold on, I haven’t shared the bad news yet.

kids video games

Go ahead try and pry this game control from my mathematically challenged hands, I dare ya.

This test administered and quantified by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) of which we are a member, is part of its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The test measures basic subject knowledge in math, science, reading and problem-solving and provides some comparison as to what the average global teen knows, should know, and what they could do with such knowledge moving forward. At least, according to the OECD/PISA website.

As Mr. Angel Gurria, the OECD Secretary-General (head boss, El Jefe) makes clear, the test results “go well beyond mere statistical benchmarking high performance educational systems” but allows for many to identify those high-performing school systems and adapt local policies to emulate and replicate their success.


Look at the nations with the highest scores, find out what they are doing that you are not and try to mimic their success by adapting their approach to your system. Easier said than done, right? So, are we the envy and “model” for the rest of the world? Not quite, my mathematically challenged American teen friend. Not quite.

Fact is the USA finished in the lower middle of the pack. In Math, 35 nations scored higher than us. The top scores came from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, Korea (sense an Asian pattern yet?) and Switzerland. The USA even trailed those mathematical bully nations like Liechenstein, Canada, Vietnam, Slovenia, Slovakia and Luxembourg. I suppose it’s partially good news that most US kids couldn’t find those  nations we scored lower than on a map. Our shame is perhaps mitigated by our own geographical ignorance and stubborn indifference.

Chinese kids

Envy us if you will. Learning how we did it may be more rational though.

The nations with the biggest gains over the last few years in Mathematics were Italy, Portugal, and Poland. Hey, 1/3 of us can find Italy on a map if you spot us the “boot!”

Italy boot

Maybe we need a kick from the boot to get us going.

Okay, how about all those little Scientific American teen “brainiacs” watching Bill Nye the Science Guy? Well, there were about 30 nations ahead of us. The top scores hailed from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, (gee, that’s a persistent little pattern, hey?) and Finland.

Italy, Poland, Qatar and Estonia showed the greatest increase in Science scores over the last few years. Well, we did manage to eke out a win over Peru and Tunisia. Yeah, take that losers. USA, we’re number#36 or so.

Bill nye science guy

Don’t blame me if teens prefer watching the Kardashians. I tried.

And how about reading and critical thinking? Well, the good news is our girls continued to show some improvement and increased the lag between American girls and boys. I don’t want to bring up hours spent by our boys on game-boy or X-box versus girls who still seem to actually read but denial is still just a river in France, er, Egypt.

girl and video game

Hey, at least I can read dear brother.

Overall? US kids again were in the middle of the pack. East Asian nations as well as those in the Nordic region again dominated while Israel, Poland and Albania showed the most improvement.

At least we continued to dominate Peru. Of course, since they finished dead last in all categories so did 64 other nations. Facts and figures can make for real party-poopers.

So, what do the PISA scores mean? Well, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan depicted the results as a “picture of educational stagnation” and admonished us all to do more in recruiting top notch students, preparing our kids and making college more affordable.

All well and good Mr. Secretary but these were scores of teen students and we are already far behind a majority of the other nations taking the exams. In other words, making college more affordable is a fine and noble goal but by then, honestly, it is already too late to close the global learning gap.

What will the fallout be as a result of our less than stellar scores? I can almost guarantee the following-there will be some who attack the PISA test, some who dismiss the importance of such measures, some who decry any form of standardized testing and some who will fall back on the “everyone is a winner” philosophy no matter what the scores. There will be a few new age educators who will encourage us to give a trophy to every kid who survived the grueling 2 hours of exam-taking. You know, because stroking one’s self-esteem is paramount regardless of the more cold and sobering results.

smiley trophy

Scores, s’mores. It’s self-esteem that counts, right kids?

Look, I don’t pretend to have all the answers either. But as one who has been teaching kids in higher education now for over 15 years, most of it full time and some of it internationally I have drawn a few anecdotally driven conclusions. The first is that those nations that consistently score ahead of us are imbued within a culture that makes learning and achieving academically not just a nice thing but a necessary thing. No excuses. It might sound a bit harsh but the results don’t lie. Second, it does start early. I don’t mean the kid needs to start reading Shakespeare at age 2 but the love and passion of pursuing knowledge must be recognized, rewarded and heavily reinforced. Wanting to emulate Lebron James is wonderful but truly, how many kids are ever gonna fly like King James, rap like Jay-Z or throw a spiral like Tom Brady? Answer? None.

Third, we’ve allowed feel-good motivations and grade inflation to absolutely cripple our educational system. I see it every day I teach class. Far too many students feel entitled to a good grade because they (well, their parents) paid tuition and they (miraculously) showed up for (most) of their classes. Fourth, somehow constructive feedback to students who clearly cannot write, read or even compute at a basic level is seen as picking on students, or targeting students for abuse. The sad fact is that I have seen student’s writing skills deteriorate over the last decade to such a degree that now if I see a paragraph that is coherent or (gasp) an essay that is constructed clearly I want to pop the cork and celebrate. The fact is by the time I get them it may again be too late to help them dramatically upgrade their skills to be globally competitive.

Look, it’s not all gloom and doom. I also see well-meaning and earnest kids every semester. They want to achieve, learn and do their best. It’s just that I remain convinced that our system is simply failing them early on and as a result they are, if not failing, truly lagging behind the rest of the world. The really bad news? The gap is getting bigger not smaller.

It’s well beyond time for us all to wake up and stop blaming the test-givers for the test results. We are not getting the job done. Secretary-General Gurria is spot on-time to swallow our false pride, see what others are doing and then try and adapt their approach.

Because the thrill of beating Peru and Tunisia will only take us so far. And for so long.



12 thoughts on “Global Test Scores are In. You Want the Good or Bad News First?

  1. Brian Westerly says:

    Since we will start pointing fingers anyways because of our low ranking let’s start pointing it right at us-there’s the problem. Good Post and insight.

  2. Christie S says:

    This article hit the bull’s eye! We are spending thousands of dollars in the United States investing in technology in our school system. Although some of these tools that we are implementing are helping improve learning, we have not been able to see large enough results to continue spending. I want to see the statistics that show every high school student having an iPad in the classroom increases their test scores. This kind of technology is being funded by the government without statistics to back up its worth. It is important that school take notice of what other countries are doing. There are countries around the world that are surpassing the United States with smaller funding.

  3. Larry M says:

    I currently work in higher education and I am saddened by the number of students that come in so unprepared for learning. It also saddens me that we do not emphasize the necessity of education in our culture today. Sure we pay lip service to it, and design national core curriculum to try and fix the problem, but we just end of throwing more money at it. The teachers unions are concerned with retaining ineffective teachers and educational leaders are embroiled in cheating scandals involving standardized testing in order to present an aura of achievement. We are not graduating enough students who are prepared to enter the workforce in the math and science areas. The scary truth is that we are running out of time to turn the tide and take educating our children seriously again. If they don’t learn to master the harder subjects in middle and high school, they have no hope of doing so once they enter the world of higher education. And if we aren’t careful, we will have a hard time convincing people with those skills to come to the US to work when they can now find the same opportunities in other parts of the world.

  4. tara c says:

    So where is it that we as American’s lay blame, Parental involvement, culture values, poverty, teachers, curricula, or our education reform policies? As with everything else fingers are pointed in every direction. I think it is a combination of several things. My sister-in-law is a teacher who went to school for Health and Physical Education, her school has her teaching special education math classes. Did I mention that she loathes math. She did not have the first clue on teaching special education students, she was given the curriculum and she learns how to teach her next day’s class the night before. How can we expect our children to learn and get a good education when they are being taught by teachers teaching outside their field of expertise? We can’t. We have a shortage of teachers. We also have more parents who are not involved in their children’s daily school and I am not speaking about the parents who have to work two jobs to support their family so they cannot be there every minute. I am speaking about the parents who have the lazier faire attitude. I know of a parent whose son just did not like going to school and failed every year in high school. The school and the mother’s solution, pass him on and he can make the classes up in night school. The child should be a senior this year, instead he was in his junior year and still has not completed all the freshman or sophomore classes and decided he was just going to quit school. Seventeen and a dropout. We have such a high rate of dropout’s in America.
    I think our entire American education system need a complete reform or we will continue to lag behind. I did a quick search to see where my city schools ranked in Georgia and where Georgia ranked in the nation. According to Savannah Georgia has a score of 4 out of 10, based on test scores. I believe we have 7 schools who have received F’s every year based on the schools test results. Depending on what you are basing the ranking on, Georgia sits between 41st – 47th. Very discouraging, makes me so happy my step-children are getting their education in New York ranked number two by NYSUT.

  5. Karen P W says:

    Of course, one must also consider the fact that the US requires the education of the masses from 5 – 18 yrs of age in most states regardless of achievement. participation, behavior, parent engagement, community support, funding, technology, heated/cooled buildings, enough textbooks/resources…I could go on. In most of the higher achieving nations, the students who do not achieve academically are tracked to vocational programs or other fields or return to help the family business.

    I think this comparison to other nations is part of the patriotic hype sometimes. Because as important as we say our teachers are, we don’t pay or support them as though they are invaluable. We provide housing benefits (Good Neighbor Next Door), but in some of the worst/scariest neighborhoods! Why? Because they are so precious or because they are expendable?

    So, instead of investing in the models and policies that will truly improve education, we are fed these comparisons as a means of motivation. But it actually breeds another reiteration of racist sentiments that affect people abroad as well as at home.

  6. Ben F says:

    While I never miss a chance to criticize today’s students I can’t help but think that much of the test score hype is cultural. It is human nature to take the path of least resistance. American students know, or used to know that they didn’t have to try all that hard to graduate from high school or even college. Then they could get a job and all that goes with it. Contrast that with a kid from India. Everybody is a straight A student. They have to struggle to get jobs in call centers for very little money. But now the earth has flattened and our student find themselves competing with students who have spent their entire lives studying. What I’m trying to say here, and probably doing a bad job of it, is that our students will become more competitive when they have to. There may be a learning curve at first, but they’ll get there.

  7. Casey Holcom says:

    We’re focusing so much on standardized tests at the end of the year we really don’t focus as much on other information in classrooms. We’ve been behind these other countries for so long but yet we’re still not adapting our education to resemble theirs, we’re going in the wrong direction.

  8. Laurie S says:

    One thing that could help American students is the elimination of summer vacation. As a child I would forget so much over summer break and can remember teachers re-teaching things at the beginning of the school year. Instead of one really long breaks it should be 2 week breaks throughout the year. Children use to get the summer off to help their family farms and to stop the spread of disease in overheated classrooms, but that is not necessary anymore. There is no logical reason for a 2 month break in the summer. Keep kids in school and keep them learning, that will increase their ability to retain knowledge.

  9. B. Alston says:

    The elementary and secondary education system in America must revamp its current approach to educating our students. With each new administration we encounter a new education reform initiative that make small strides in closing the gap with other academically excelling counties, particularly in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math. But, in the same breath, teaching now encompasses meeting the needs of students holistically – social needs, medical needs, special education needs, etc. Teachers must be more than a teacher in today’s society – they are a psychologist, babysitter, etc. These “extra” duties can take a toll on educators that directly affect their passion for teaching which can impact their direct instruction. This is certainly no excuse as I agree that we should emulate the practices, as much as feasibly possible, that are moving other countries forward.

  10. Jessica V. says:

    I think everyone has done a great job pointing out the shortcomings of our education system–teaching to the test, focusing too much on sports/other activities, low teacher pay, too much coddling for some (not enough for others), too many expectations on teachers, teaching to the test, summer breaks, technology, lack of parent involvement (or too much), and the list goes on. This is perhaps the most serious issue we face as a democratic country. I think we need to be using our states and cities/school districts as laboratories and applying scholarly techniques to the study of what works and what doesn’t work more often, and that information needs to be broadly disseminated and discussed. That’s obviously a more reactive response to the overall problem, which can be summarized in one word, culture. Our attitude about education, about teachers, about the role of learning and how to learn is the root of the problem, and that’s why it is so hard to make a positive change. What is it that other countries do to instill the appropriate attitude toward learning at a young age? We need to figure that out and figure out how to integrate it into our culture in a way that allows flexibility in the era of constant technological change. Who knows if this is even realistic? I can tell you what won’t help…dismantling the Department of Education and continuing to defund education at all levels.

  11. Jenny K. says:

    Education in America: A shining jewel or a piece of coal

    It is very easy to point out issues with the American education system. I survived it and both my children are currently trying to survive.

    All issues that have been pointed out are a huge concern but probably not the underlying problem. As many other areas of American society, education fails because it is a one size fits all approach. Every child is unique. They each come with challenges and successes. Applying a one size fits all approach to education leaves out all those kids that are different. Some kids test better then others; some have parental involvement, others don’t; some have food, others don’t; some have a stable home, others don’t; some have learning disabilities, others don’t; some like sports, others don’t; this list is never ending.

    Charter schools and private schools have better results in America because they attempt to cater to the kids they are assigned to educate. They also have a smaller base so differences are not as large.

    The American education system needs to evaluate what is working and what is not. They need to look at all avenues including private schools, charter schools, and of course international education. Also, reducing funding will not solve the problem as well as throwing money after bad solutions.

    On a personal note: I transferred from a German school to an American school my third grade year. I was 2 years ahead in Math and 2 years behind in English. This was 20 years ago. I believe and the test results show, the gap is getting bigger.

  12. Tracy says:

    I think we spend too much time teaching to the test. We need to go back to the basics of teaching to the old fashioned curriculum of reading, writing, and arithmetic. The new way of teaching math does not work – what is wrong with the standard way of teaching students addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division? We need to spend less money and energy on having the latest/greatest technology (which no one uses) and get back to the basics of education in this nation. Stop teaching to the test and just teach to the standards.

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