Best U.S. Schools Barely Compete with International Peers

Published October 13, 2011

The highest-scoring U.S. school districts are mediocre compared to their international counterparts, reports a new study examining national and international student test scores.

This finding contradicts widespread perceptions that wealthy, suburban U.S. school districts graduate well-educated students though “most individuals know there is an achievement gap within certain large cities, and that broadly speaking we aren’t as competitive internationally,” said Kerri Briggs, director of education reform at the George W. Bush Institute, which published the report.

Although students in affluent districts almost always perform better than their inner-city peers, compared to their actual peers and future market competitors across the globe these students at best land in the middle of the pack, write Jay P. Greene and Josh McGee, authors of the Global Report Card (GRC) published in September.

“If Americans want to live up to their historic character as a culture that’s never satisfied with mediocrity, they had better sit up and pay attention to these studies,” said Greg Forster, a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

‘Relevant Comparison’
“Existing state accountability systems encourage people to compare their public school districts with others in their state,” said Greene, a fellow at the Bush Institute and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. “But the relevant comparison is not how suburban districts are doing relative to big cities; it is how our advantaged suburban districts are doing relative to students in other developed countries against whom our graduates will be competing for top-paying jobs in an increasingly globalized market.”

This comparison, Greene said, “Shows that even our advantaged suburban students are often struggling to keep pace with the average student overseas.”

Drilling Down to Districts
The GRC analyzes nearly every district in the United States as well as international test scores, and its website allows visitors to use its data to compare their own district internationally. It’s the first such report to “drill down to the district level,” Briggs said.

“All previous international comparisons have stopped at the state level,” she noted.

Using state accountability test results from almost 14,000 of the nation’s school districts, the researchers adjusted the scores based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called “the nation’s report card” and widely considered the most reliable U.S. test. Next, they compared these scores with those of students in 25 developed nations including France, Australia, and Singapore, based on results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Twenty-three of these nations have lower per-person gross domestic product than the United States, meaning their countries produce less national wealth per citizen.

Outranked, Outflanked
The data show students in Beverly Hills, California rank at the 53rd percentile in math when compared internationally. In Falls Church, Virginia—recognized by Forbes earlier this year as the richest county in the United States—public-school students rank at the 58th percentile in math. In Bellevue, Washington, one of the wealthiest communities on the West Coast, students are at the 64th percentile in math.

Among the 20 largest U.S. cities, the authors note, not one ranks above the 50th percentile in math. Forty-eight percent of students in a typical developed country outrank U.S. students from the nation’s 50 most affluent suburbs on math.

The authors computed both math and reading results across nations, but in most comparisons they focused on math results because those are easiest to compare across languages and cultures and most closely correlated with national economic performance.

Translating Test Results
Most feedback and commentary on the report so far has been positive, Green said, because “a lot of people recognize what a useful tool it is and how alarming our suburban student performance often is.”

The GRC “is like a big thermometer that tells us where we have problems and how severe they are,” although as a report card it was not designed to suggest specific policy changes to help improve education he added. 

A Rutgers University professor complained no one would rank tennis players or soccer teams in this way, and some have requested more analysis from the authors using international tests other than PISA.

“Our method is conceptually very similar to how we rank sports teams, like the [Bowl Championship Series] for college football,” Greene said in response. “The problem of how you rank teams that don’t play each other is similar to how you compare student achievement when not all students take the same tests.  The imperfect but necessary solution is to translate performance across different tests, or in the case of sports, from one match to another.”

Suggesged Remedy: School Choice
“Every school in America, not just the schools that are obviously failing, needs the enterprising drive for improvement that only universal school choice can deliver,” Forster said in addressing the problems indicated by the study.

With U.S. school districts continuing to slide not just when compared with each other but also internationally on nearly every measure and study, Forster said, increasing school choice becomes “critical.”

“School choice is by far the best-proven policy for improving public schools,” Forster said. “Nineteen high-quality empirical studies show that school choice improves outcomes in public schools, while none finds public schools are harmed by choice.”


Internet Info
“Global Report Card,” Jay Greene and Josh McGee:

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