More Countries Pass U.S. by in Education Rankings

December 4, 2013

The 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) education rankings were released today and students in the United States did not fare well. Administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years, the rankings provide a snapshot of how students in 65 countries measure up to one another.

Among 65 countries and localities, students in the United States slipped from 11th to 21st in reading, 20th to 24th in science, and 25th to 31st in math. Among the OECD countries, the U.S. ranks 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math. The inference is that U.S. student achievement remains flat, while other countries continue to improve and pass us by.

What is unique about the PISA exams is that they do not measure student knowledge, but rather the application of knowledge to solve problems in the real world. Sound familiar?

This is the basis of the Common Core State Standards —for students to become better problem solvers. Instead of rote memorization, Common Core is intended to challenge students to think critically, comprehend the ‘why’, and gain a deeper understanding of material.

The OECD overview states “students in the United States have particular weaknesses in performing mathematics tasks with higher cognitive demands, such as taking real-world situations, translating them into mathematical terms, and interpreting mathematical aspects in real-world problems. A successful implementation of the Common Core Standards would yield significant performance gains in PISA.”

For the first time, three states received state-level data on PISA; Massachusetts and Connecticut performed well on all exams whereas Florida either lagged behind or was on par with the U.S. and OECD averages.

Stephanie Banchero of the Wall Street Journal writes, “In Massachusetts, educators and policy makers credit the good showing, in part, to a 1993 effort that boosted spending and ushered in rigorous standards and achievement tests that students have to pass to graduate.”

She also provides an anecdote of an eighth grade teacher who moved from California to Boston only to be “completely blown away by what we ask students to do. He said the exams are so rigorous.” 

Massachusetts provides evidence that higher standards lead to improved results for students.

In fact, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute considered Massachusetts standards to be on par with Common Core (which the state has adopted).

If elevated standards for all children have yielded high results in Massachusetts, imagine the potential for children in all of the states that have adopted the Common Core.

Mark D'Alessio is manager of communications for the USCCF Education and Workforce program.