America Drops to the Middle of the Pack in Education


by The Impact on Thursday, March 3, 2011 at 6:03pm ·

February 2011

By Tom Fehn

The economy isn’t the only thing in the United States that has been on a downturn recently.

The United States has fallen from top of the class to average in world education rankings.

According to a recent survey by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report has shown that America has now fallen to the middle of the pack when it comes to education.

The three-yearly OECD report, which compares the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 70 countries around the world, ranked the United States 14th out of all the OECD countries for reading skills, 17th for science and a below-average 25th for mathematics. The United States has fallen in all three categories being in the top ten when the last survey was done in 2006.

In comparison, Canada’s children are more than one school year ahead of their U.S. peers in math and more than half a school year ahead in reading and science, said the report released hours after President Barack Obama urged Americans not to rein in education spending, even in a tough economy.

Boosting US scores for reading, math and science by 25 points over the next 20 years would result in a gain of 41 trillion dollars for the United States economy over the lifetime of the generation born in 2010, the OECD said.

“Bringing the United States up to the average performance of Finland, the best-performing education system among OECD countries, could result in gains in the order of 103 trillion dollars,” said the report.

Currently, 18 percent of US 15-year-olds do not reach an OECD-set level of of reading proficiency, compared to 10 percent in China-Shanghai and Hong Kong, which are compared with countries because of the size of their populations, said the report.

The United States has also fallen behind in the percentage of 15-year-olds who are enrolled in school, ranking third from bottom of the OECD countries, above only Mexico and Turkey.

Only eight OECD countries have a lower high school graduation rate than the United States, and in college education, the United States slipped from second to 13th between 1995 and 2008 not because US college graduation rates declined, but because they have risen so much faster in other OECD countries.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide evaluation of 15-year-old school pupils’ scholastic performance, performed first in 2000 and repeated every three years. It is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with a view to improving educational policies and outcomes.

PISA stands in a tradition of international school studies, undertaken since the late 1950s by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Much of PISA’s methodology follows the example of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS, started in 1995), which in turn was much influenced by the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The reading component of PISA is inspired by the IEA’s Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS).

PISA aims at testing literacy in three competence fields: reading, mathematics, and science.

The PISA mathematics literacy test asks students to apply their mathematical knowledge to solve problems set in various real-world contexts. To solve the problems students must activate a number of mathematical competencies as well as a broad range of mathematical content knowledge. TIMSS, on the other hand, measures more traditional classroom content such as an understanding of fractions and decimals and the relationship between them (curriculum attainment). PISA claims to measure education’s application to real-life problems and life-long learning (workforce knowledge).

In the reading test, “OECD/PISA does not measure the extent to which 15-year-old students are fluent readers or how competent they are at word recognition tasks or spelling”. Instead, they should be able to “construct, extend, and reflect on the meaning of what they have read across a wide range of continuous and non-continuous texts”