US students’ stagnant test scores merit concern — but not alarm

Americans should not REACH FOR the panic button on news that U.S. students continue to stagnate in academic achievement when compared with their peers around the world.

Recent release of results of a set of international test scores indicate American students’ prowess in core subjects continues to lag those of other developed and some not-so-developed nations.

The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment reported that test scores for U.S. teens were flat, while those for their counterparts elsewhere — particularly in Asia — skyrocketed. Students in 65 of the world’s wealthiest countries participated, and those in 29 countries scored higher than their U.S. counterparts in math. Students in 22 countries did better in science, and students in 19 countries outscored Americans in reading.

Clearly, these results are cause for concern among those who understand the direct link between academic achievement and quality of life. They, however, should not be greeted with alarm and used as a blanket indictment against America’s public schools.


First, the results hardly represent any stunning news flash. U.S. scores on the PISA test have stayed basically flat since they were first given in 2000, the Wall Street Journal reports. In most areas of the test, the U.S. performs at average levels. One of the most respected American exams, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, shows that the performance of teenagers has been flat since 1971, even as our elementary school children — especially poor students — have improved. Other international exams, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, report American students are improving in math, science, and reading, and are actually above average internationally.

Obviously, Americans should avoid making hasty generalizations based on one set of data. Historical analysis reinforces the notion that stagnant test scores — in and of themselves — also can be deceptive as predictors of future success for individuals and nations. For example, the U.S. remains a much stronger world power than Vietnam, Slovenia and Estonia, all of which have scored consistently higher than America on the PISA.


Given those caveats, Americans however cannot simply ignore the lackluster results. When analyzed, they raise some legitimate questions and reinforce some long-standing truisms about academic performance in U.S. schools.

Stagnant test scores over the past 42 years invite analysis and debate on the effectiveness of such massive multibillion-dollar federal programs as the No Child Left Behind Act and Race to the Top, both of which have as flagship goals boosting student exam performance.

Sluggish scores also reinforce the relationship between poverty and educational achievement. A crunching of this year’s PISA results shows that average scores from Massachusetts — one of the most affluent states in the union — ranked right up there with Finland and Canada as top performers in the world.

In addition, the PISA results underscore the value of preschool learning. Across the spectrum, students who were enrolled in preschool consistently have performed better on the test.

The scores, however, do not warrant any knee-jerk calls for a massive overhaul of the basic model for the American public school. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, sponsor of the PISA, “In the United States, once socio-economic background is accounted for, public schools show superior performance compared with private schools.”

If anything, the results buttress the importance of vigilantly questioning and monitoring the real or perceived failures of our public schools. They do not, however, justify wholesale abandonment of proven strategies for academic success within them.

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