FI’ve been thinking a lot about PISA recently, and I don’t mean the Italian city in Tuscany.
I’m talking about the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). It’s the test given to 15-year old students in 64 countries every three years. PISA tests student proficiency in math, science and reading.
The scores from the most recent round of testing are in, and American students didn’t fare so well. According to the scoring, American students ranked below the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) average in math and sciences. The United States placed 35th in a field of 64 countries. Compared to the 2003 scores, American 15-year-olds scored an average of 481 in math, down three points, and they scored an average of 498 in reading, down six points.
The good news was that the average score in science rose eight points to 497 compared to 2003. It was still below the international average.
The low scores have resulted in much hand wringing, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments among politicians, educators, media pundits and even a few parents.
Most of those concerned about America’s poor performance on the PISA exam believe there needs to be an impetus placed on improving science and math scores because future job growth will be in professions requiring those skills and not having workers skilled in those subjects will impair future economic growth.
Are the PISA scores really that accurate predictor of future economic growth?
I didn’t have a clue, so I did me some research.
I found a paper that analyzed the results of the First International Comparison Study (administered to 12-year-olds in 11 countries in 1964) as they compared to national economic success in the first decade of the 21st Century. In the 1964 test, American students came in second to last, barely beating out Sweden.
What the paper’s authors found was, “the higher a nations’ test score in 1964, the worse its subsequent economic performance.” Their analysis of a nation’s economic performance measured “wealth creation, GDP growth, productivity, quality of life, democracy and creativity.”
Reviewing the results of other international tests, I found that somewhere along the way someone created the myth that America once led the world in international testing and that our fall to mediocrity is a recent occurrence.
I did learn three things.
First, American students have never been first, or for that matter even near the top, when it comes to international testing. American students are doing as poorly now as their predecessors have done over the past 50 years.
Nevertheless, since 1956, no country has won more Nobel prizes per capita than the good ol’ US of A. In 2011, American inventors received the second highest number of patents per capita in the world, trailing Japan.
Not too shabby.
Second, the playing field isn’t level. In America, every 15-year-old student has an equal chance to be tested. In cities like Shanghai, whose students scored highest on the PISA exam, by age 15 only the university-bound are still in “high school;” the others drop out or enroll in vocational schools.
I wonder where America would place if only its “best and brightest” took the PISA exam.
Third, I found a recent editorial in The New York Times (NYT) lamenting the fact that American “students are bored by science and math,” and “90 percent of high-school students are not interested in a career involving those subjects.” The editorial goes on to relate the majority of new jobs are going to require some proficiency in science and math.
What I didn’t find was any analysis of why American students find math and science boring. Until we fully understand the “why,” we won’t be able to solve the problem, and it’s an important problem to solve.
Nor could I find any analysis comparing urban, rural and suburban scores. Are the scores consistently low, or is one doing better than the others are?
It’s important that these subjects become more relevant to American students simply because math teaches you to reason logically, science teaches you to think empirically. And let’s not forget the humanities, they teach you to read critically and analytically.
It’s the combination of those three attributes that make a person a good citizen and a good employee.
Yes, the PISA scores are troubling, but let’s identify the root cause of the problem before we panic.
Paul Grasso is the president & CEO of The Development Corporation of Plattsburgh.