A test that measures students' proficiency in reading, math and science worldwide shows that American 15-year-olds continue to turn in flat results, failing to crack the global top 20. Other countries have made gains since the last assessment, gaining on, and in some cases surpassing, the U.S.
The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, collects test results from 65 countries for its rankings, which come out every three years. The just-released results from 2012 show that in math, U.S. students ranked below average among the world's most-developed countries. They were close to average in science and reading.
The top overall scores came from Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macao, and Japan, followed by Lichtenstein, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Estonia.
The math scores of students in Shanghai showed that they are "the equivalent of over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, itself a strong-performing U.S. state," according to the study.
Reacting to the PISA findings, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called it a "picture of educational stagnation." He told the AP that America needs to "invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators."
From the PISA assessment:
Students in the U.S. are largely satisfied with their school and view teacher-student relations positively. But they do not report strong motivation towards learning mathematics: only 50 percent [of] students agreed that they are interested in learning mathematics, slightly below the OECD average of 53 percent.
Here's how NPR's Claudio Sanchez describes the situation for a report on today's Morning Edition:
"Remember the movie Groundhog Day, where the main character wakes up every morning and realizes nothing has changed? He's reliving the same day over and over again. Well that pretty much sums up the latest PISA results for 15-year-olds in the U.S. Their scores in reading, math and science have not changed since 2003."
That means teenagers in Vietnam have now outpaced their American counterparts in their average scores in math and science. Students in Ireland and Poland did better than the U.S. in all three subjects measured.
Claudio talked to Harvard professor Jan Rivkin, who co-chairs a project on U.S. competitiveness.
"While our scores in reading are the same as 2009, scores from Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Poland and others have improved and now surpass ours," Rivkin says. "Other countries that were behind us, like Italy and Portugal, are now catching up. We are in a race in the global economy. The problem is not that we're slowing down. The problem is that the other runners are getting faster."
In the overall results, the United States was slotted between the Slovak Republic and Lithuania, two spots behind Russia. But the PISA assessment notes that there are few statistical differences between the scores of the U.S. and those countries.
As for what might improve Americans' showing, the PISA assessment suggests there is no simple answer:
While the U.S. spends more per student than most countries, this does not translate into better performance. For example, the Slovak Republic, which spends around USD 53,000 per student, performs at the same level as the United States, which spends over USD 115,000 per student.
More than half a million students took part in the assessment, which uses a paper-based test that lasts two hours. Students between the ages of 15 years, three months and 16 years, two months take the tests.
If you'd like to try some test questions yourself, you can do that at the PISA site.