PISA: A Clarion Bell for American Education?

The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE.

The latest release of international test results has once again stirred the controversy of whether or not American students can successfully compete academically in a global context. Before we condemn our educational system, however, we must first understand exactly what the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) reveals about student performance and whether a fair comparison can be made between American 15-year-olds and those in other countries.

Between 2009 and 2013, the performance of American students on PISA did not change. Overall, U.S. teens were found to be very good at basic tasks, but they fell short when engaging in critical thinking and deeper learning. PISA also shows that even though the United States has slightly closed the achievement gap for poor or disadvantaged children, the U.S. gap is still much larger than in most top-performing countries. (These findings are consistent with previous results on state summative assessments and the National Assessment of Educational Progress.) Further, the PISA analysis suggests that schools should focus more attention on developing students’ analytical skills in concert with state summative assessments. It also speaks to the need for more equitable distribution of educational resources.

Researchers often question the reliability and validity of using PISA to compare the United States with countries that have different proportions of disadvantaged students and investments in education. Yet top-performing PISA countries have numerous factors in common. High-scoring countries usually have universal PK-12 standards, tend to distribute educational resources more equitably, invest more in early childhood education, don’t use students’ test scores to evaluate teachers, make significant investments in teachers’ training and compensation, and have more school autonomy.

American schools must consider these factors if we are to remain competitive on an international scale while redoubling our commitment to “leave no child behind” as we engage in systemic reforms to reach all children. In fact, a desire to increase academic learning for all students while increasing competiveness is the driving force behind the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), a recent example of a reform effort that has been adopted by most states.

In order to prepare all learners for standards such as CCSS, we educators must both remember the lessons we have learned and expand our knowledge. Our longstanding belief in the benefits of educational research will serve us well, as will our firm commitment to early education and to addressing the educational needs of all children. We need to expand our understanding of how to enhance student and teacher outcomes in the ever-changing multitude of educational, technological, geographical, and socioeconomic environments across the country.

For example, budgetary constraints often hamper the ability of school districts to provide fiscal investment in teachers beyond basic salary scales, but we know that investing in teachers and providing teacher-driven professional development enhances teacher efficacy. We need to acknowledge this value and act on it through a more equitable distribution of resources. We should also invest more heavily in early childhood education to lay a stronger foundation for both educational attainment and future competitiveness in the global context, as PISA and other studies have demonstrated.

On the bright side, the United States continues to improve results when dealing with children from a low socioeconomic background, as a growing percentage of such students are considered to be high achievers. More attention is warranted to this phenomenon of “resiliency” as a factor affecting student academic performance, which is also found in high-performing PISA countries.

The new PISA results are a clarion bell for our profession. They provide us valuable information on where American learners stand in comparison to other nations in academic performance and in the ability to think critically, and they add to the evidence base in educational research. Of two possible visions for American education—the current one with unequal distribution of educational resources, or one with more balanced and equitable opportunities for all learners—for a stronger America (and world), we support the latter vision.

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AACTE Committee on Global Diversity

Patricia Hoffman-Miller (Chair), Prairie View A&M University
Tim Wall (Board Liaison), Northwest Missouri State University
Lora Bailey, Indiana University Northwest
Emily Lin, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Sandra Nichols, University of Alabama
Lori Quigley, Sage Colleges
Reyes Quezada, University of San Diego