PISA Test Results For U.S. Students Are 'Sobering'

International standardized test scores have been released. The test is given to students around the world every three years. It measures their knowledge of reading, mathematics and science literacy. U.S. students usually turn in mediocre performances, and this year's scores were no different.

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Ever since the Year 2000, 15-year-olds from around the world have taken a test every three years to gauge their reading, math and science skills. It's called PISA, short for Program for International Student Assessment.

And as NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, the results of the U.S. are being described as sobering.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Remember the movie "Groundhog Day," where the main character wakes up every morning and realizes nothing has changed? He's re-living 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.

JACK BUCKLEY: Yes, unfortunately that's true. So across the three major subjects, essentially the U.S. 15-year-old average scores have remained flat over the entire history of PISA.

SANCHEZ: And that's not good news, says Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics. It oversaw the testing of 5,000 students in the U.S. last year.

BUCKLEY: PISA is like a thermometer. It tells us where we stand. It tells us whether we're improving or not. And that's really what it's for.

SANCHEZ: Well, if that's all it is - a thermometer - the U.S. appears to be bedridden with a fever while other countries are getting healthier and stronger. In math, U.S. 15-year-olds look pretty weak, they ranked 36th among 64 nations, somewhere between Lithuania and the Slovak Republic. In science, the U.S. ranked 28th between Denmark and Spain. And in reading, the U.S. ranked 24th.

But here's the most troubling finding, says Harvard Professor Jan Rivkin.

JAN RIVKIN: While our scores in reading are the same as 2009, scores from Belgium, Estonia, Germany, Ireland, Poland and others countries improved and now surpass ours. Other countries that were behind us, like Italy and Portugal, are now catching up. You know, 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.

SANCHEZ: Rivkin, who co-chairs a project on U.S. competitiveness at Harvard, says even Vietnam - a poor developing country - now has higher average scores than the U.S. in math and science. And that, experts say, points to something more ominous.

MARC TUCKER: The current education reform agenda in the United States has not worked.

SANCHEZ: That's Marc Tucker. He heads the Center for Education and the Economy which for 25 years has been studying the world's best performing education systems, like the Chinese province of Shanghai and countries like Japan and the Republic of Korea.

TUCKER: These countries have been making big changes in their education system. They have not been tradition-bound. They have asked themselves what's working for us and what's not working for us, and they have been willing to change. Number two, what you will find among top performers is that they have been working hard to provide more resources for kids who are harder to educate, than kids who are easier to educate. In some of those countries, like Singapore, it means not just more teachers but better teachers.

SANCHEZ: Still, there is a bright side for the U.S. in all this, says Harvard Professor Jan Rivkin. If you break down U.S. scores by state, Massachusetts is right up there with some of this year's top performing countries. So if Massachusetts was a country, it would rank 6th in reading above Finland - a country that many in the U.S. consider a model. In science, Massachusetts would rank 9th; and in math, 17th.

RIVKIN: The success in Massachusetts, I think shows the power of finding a coherent strategy. Here, we've raised standards, we've provided greater support, we've invested deeply in the quality of teaching. And we in Massachusetts have stuck to that for decades, and that shows up in the results over time

SANCHEZ: Massachusetts, says Rivkin, is a good example of what works when school reformers stay the course.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

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