A global study that tests and compares 15-year old students’ science, math and reading literacy in developed and developing countries confirms that the United States is still falling behind. The evaluative study entitled Program for International Student Assessment, was first administered in 2000 and was performed again in 2003, 2006 and most recently, in 2009.
In a year that has seen constant scrutiny of the United States’ education system and persistent discussion regarding the need for education reform; the results of the study serve only to exacerbate concern. And, while the U.S. has made “modest gains” in science and math, U.S. students still shrink in comparison to their 15-year old counterparts around the world.
U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, called the results of the study “an absolute wake-up call to America” and urged administrators and lawmakers to deal with “the brutal truth” and “get much more serious about investing in education.” With U.S. students ranking 15th in reading skills, 17th in science and 25th (statistically significantly below the average) in math, Duncan and citizens nationwide have cause for concern. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development which proctors the standardized test, found that countries with the highest-scoring students included: China, Canada, Korea, Singapore and Japan.
The U.S. has reason to worry. Despite the very modest gains that were made, U.S. students have continued to score significantly lower than students in a number of other nations since the test’s implementation in 2000. In fact, U.S. students are barely ranking above the OECD average in reading and science, and fall well below the average score in math- the most noteworthy problem area. Because of this, tackling under-achievement in the U.S. education sector should be a top priority. Not only does under-achievement affect students; the broader reach of under-achievement affects the national economy, global marketplace and larger society as a whole.
So, what are the differentiating factors in student achievement from country to country? What helps set one nation apart from the other so divisively? Primarily, countries that have continually performed well on the Program for International Student Assessment place an extremely high value on education and learning. Report the authors of the study “universal high expectations are not a mantra but a reality and students who start to fall behind are identified quickly, their problem is promptly and accurately diagnosed and the appropriate course of actions is quickly taken.” Additionally, top-performing countries work hard to train and retain the best teachers, often recruiting the top 5-10% of graduates into the teaching profession.
And, while social divisions and social background seem to play a permanent role in quality of education and access to resources and finances in the United States, this is not the case in successful countries (like China and Canada) where traditionally underprivileged students are found to, despite circumstance, perform extremely well.