How U.S. 15-Year-Olds Compare to Their International Peers

Source: Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)

by James A. Bacon

Every three years the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development administers standardized reading, math, and science tests to representative samples of 15-year-olds from dozens of countries — 79 in 2018, to be exact. Despite a decades-long effort in the United States to raise standards, the performance of American teenagers has been stagnant since 2000, reports the New York Times. (Actually, math performance has declined slightly.)

Even worse, as the newspaper summarizes the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exams, “The achievement gap in reading between high and low performers is widening. Although the top quarter of American students have improved their performance on the exam since 2012, the bottom 10th percentile lost ground.” A fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared that they had not mastered the reading skills expected of a 10-year-old.

The achievement gap, which is getting wider despite the expenditure of billions of dollars to close it, is a source of consternation — and a mystery — to the educators consulted by the NYTimes. “There is no consensus on why the performance of struggling students is declining. Could it be school segregation? Limited school choice? Funding inequities? Family poverty?

Or… a possibility that apparently has not occurred to the NY Times… could it be the growing prevalence of “progressive” dogma in American public school systems, especially those in inner-city jurisdictions? While proponents of “social justice” aim to reduce inequality, the unintended consequences of their policies usually make inequality worse. Just a thought…

You can read the OECD assessment of US. results here. The relatively good news is that the U.S., though stagnating, performs about average among OECD countries. U.S. scores are comparable to those of Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, which isn’t bad company. It turns out that most other countries are stagnating, too.

Socio-economically advantaged students in the U.S. outperformed disadvantaged students in reading, math, and science — no surprise there. Despite the widespread sentiment that inequality is far more acute in the U.S. than other countries, the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students was only slightly higher than for OECD students as a whole — 99 score points in a 600-point scale compared to 89 points. And despite the difficulty in the U.S. of teaching immigrant students English as a Second Language, U.S. students with an immigrant background out-performed native-born Americans by 16 score points.

While socioeconomic status (SOS) was a significant determinant of test performance, socioeconomic disadvantage is not educational destiny. SOS explained only 16% of the variation in mathematics performance in the U.S. PISA test scores, according to the OECD. Also, 10% of disadvantaged students in the U.S. were able to score in the top quarter of reading performance.

Here’s where it gets really interesting…

In addition to testing students for academic mastery, the OECD asked them to answer questions about school climate. One of the most intriguing findings addressed school discipline.

Some 22% of students in the United States (OECD average: 26%) reported that, in every or most language-of-instruction lessons, their teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down. In the United States, students who reported that, in every or most lessons, the teacher has to wait a long time for students to quiet down scored 33 score points lower in reading than students who reported that this never happens or happens only in some lessons, after accounting for socio-economic status.

Who would have thunk it? Students perform better when classrooms aren’t being disrupted and teachers can teach! That strange and remarkable phenomenon appears to hold across all countries. Indeed, countries reporting the best disciplinary climate — China, Japan, and Korea, for instance — tend to be top PISA achievers.

An OECD analysis, What School Life Means for Students,” explores the relationship between disciplinary climate and reading performance by socio-economic status.

Using PISA data for the United States, Cheema and Kitsantas (2014) showed that the achievement gap in mathematics between white and minority ethnic group students tended to be considerably narrower in schools with better disciplinary climate in mathematics lessons.

On a related point: On average across OECD countries, 21% of students had skipped a day of school in the two weeks prior to the PISA test; in the U.S., the figure was 20%. Across the OECD, 48% had arrived late for school; in the U.S. the figure was 43%. Apparently, Americans aren’t the only ones with a hooky problem.

Another interesting point. We often hear that U.S. teachers are underpaid and disgruntled. While the OECD does not address that point directly, it polled students on whether their teacher shows “enjoyment in teaching.” In the U.S. 83% of students responded that their teacher seemed to enjoy teaching, compared to 74% across the OECD countries.

Note for STEM lovers: The top-performing school systems across the OECD were in Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang — all in China. They out-performed all other school systems in math and science by a wide margin. Even the most disadvantaged students in China performed in line with the average students in other countries.

Is mo’ money the answer? Heed the OECD analysis: “Given the fact that expenditure per primary and secondary student rose by more than 15% across OECD countries over the past decade, it is disappointing that most OECD countries saw virtually no improvement in the performance of their students since PISA was first conducted in 2000.”

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One response to “How U.S. 15-Year-Olds Compare to Their International Peers

  1. crickets, eh?

    Seems like I saw a study one time that said that if we subtracted the scores of the low-income students, we would be in the top 5 in the world.

    That’s the problem when you have a “gap” between high achieving and low achieving.

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