Math Scores Drop, But Achievement Gap Narrows for U.S. Teens in...

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Math Scores Drop, But Achievement Gap Narrows for U.S. Teens in International PISA Assessment

By Sydney Johnson     Dec 6, 2016

Math Scores Drop, But Achievement Gap Narrows for U.S. Teens in International PISA Assessment

The results are in: The National Center for Education Statistics today released its findings for the 2015 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

The assessment, which has been administered every three years since 2000, measures math, science and reading literacy of 15-year-olds in 73 education systems around the globe. But unlike last week’s Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) results, which showed improvement in science and math for fourth and eighth grade students in the U.S., the recent PISA scores have less encouraging outcomes. The 2015 study showed that the country’s 15-year-olds have largely stagnated in subjects like science and reading literacy, while math scores have fallen.

“The decline in math over the last three to nine years is not statistically different than the drop in math in OECD countries overall,” Jon Schnur, Executive Chairman of America Achieves, said in a press conference this morning. “That said, these results show we have a lot of work to do.”

First administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2000, this just-released 2015 study showed that U.S. average math literacy score fell 18 points below the 2009 average and 12 points below the 2012 average. More than half of all of the participating countries ranked higher in math than the U.S., which outperformed only 28 out of the 70 reporting education systems.

Science and reading proved slightly better. At 496, the U.S. came closer to the OECD average science literacy score of 493, putting the U.S. above 39 educational systems, below 18 and about on par with 12. Reading literacy scores showed the U.S. average scores ranked lower than 14 out of 70 systems, but not measurably different than 13.

Singapore ranked first in science, math and reading literacy scores, and other East Asian countries like Japan and China also hovered at the top for all subjects. Finland made the top five for science and reading literacy, and Canada and Ireland also outperformed most.

Zeroing In

Not every state in the union is equal when it comes to PISA, which took a closer look this year at how the U.S. is doing by narrowing in on state and territory-level samples in Massachusetts, North Carolina and Puerto Rico. The top performer: Massachusetts. Individually, Massachusetts’ scored 527 in science—higher than the U.S. average and just shy of Singapore’s scores. The Bay State, which participated in PISA 2012, also outperformed the U.S. average in math (500) and reading literacy (527). Meanwhile, North Carolina showed results similar to U.S. averages in reading (500), science (502) and math (471).

While both North Carolina and Massachusetts participated in the overall U.S. sample study, Puerto Rico only provided individual scores and ranked lower than the U.S in each category, scoring 410 in reading, 403 in science, and 378 in math.

Still, even in top-performing states the competition can be stiff. “We’re losing ground — a troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world,” Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said during his visit to Mildred Avenue K-8 School in Boston today. “Students in Massachusetts, Maryland and Minnesota aren’t just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines, they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany, and Japan.”

Most Improved

Though quick to point out U.S. shortcomings, Schnur emphasized that other findings from the study are worthy of applause. Most notably, he stressed how the U.S. is now number one in the world for improving equity in science and closing the achievement gap. “While trends in average student performance are disappointing,” he said in an announcement, “this study shows bright spots and progress, not just globally, but right here in the United States—especially for our most disadvantaged students.”

According to an OECD press release, only 19 percent of students in the bottom socioeconomic quartile performed in the top academic quartile for science achievement in 2006. That number almost doubled in 2016, rising to 32 percent. Lowest-achieving students also significantly improved in science achievement, with an 18-point increase in average scores. “This doesn't change the flat performance overall, but it does show progress being made,” Schnur said.

What Happens Now? Applying Results

Ranks and scores aren’t necessarily telling of true performance and don’t always provide actionable results for schools to take back to the classroom. OECD began to address this issue in 2012 by collaborating with America Achieves to administer an annual, school-level assessment known as OECD Test for Schools. The assessment measures individual school performance against other countries in order to provide schools with specific results to help improve student outcomes.

Nearly 450 schools in the U.S. have taken OECD Test for Schools, as well as 400 schools in Spain, Canada and the UK. Implementing the companion exam is important for educators to begin learning from PISA results, Schnur explained, and so tangible improvements on PISA skills can be made.

“High standards and rigorous tests are important but they won’t succeed unless followed by curricula and funding,” Schnur said. “The bottom line is we need to make dramatic progress in expanding opportunity for young people.”

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