U.S. Scores Still Mediocre on New International Test

Published March 1, 2002

A new international test designed to gauge 15-year-olds’ ability to apply what they’ve learned in reading, mathematics, and science shows U.S. performance to be distinctly mediocre.

Scores of American students generally were in the mid-range of those collected for 32 nations by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), sponsored by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Unexpected Gender Gap

The most eye-opening PISA results, however, were deep in the report and generated few, if any, headlines. Despite claims by groups like the American Association of University Women of a “gender gap” in education favoring males, 15-year-old girls scored higher than boys in combined reading literacy in all 31 nations for which those particular data were presented. And in every case, the female/male difference in scores was at statistically significant levels.

The size of the gap between males and females in reading literacy in the U.S. (29 points) was similar to that of other OECD nations, except Finland, where the difference favoring females was 51 points.

OECD is an organization composed primarily of the industrialized nations. Third World countries like Afghanistan, where women often have been deprived of formal education, were not part of this study.

“Patterns of gender differences in student achievement by subject matter and across countries can point to areas of strength and weakness within educational systems seeking to provide equal access to learning for both males and females,” stated the PISA report, titled Outcomes of Learning.

If that is the case, the PISA findings show that at least in the developed, Westernized world, educators might usefully examine what causes young males to lag so far behind in the ability to read, the skill crucial to all other learning and to personal fulfillment.

Of course, gender-equity advocates in the U.S. have dwelled mostly on the disadvantage they say girls suffer in mathematics and science. However, the PISA data show that in the main there is not a huge gap. In the U.S. and 16 other nations, the math proficiency of males and females was similar–that is, there was no statistically significance difference in scores. In 14 countries, males did perform significantly better than females, with especially large gaps in Austria, Korea, and Brazil.

In science literacy, there were few real differences between males and females. In Austria, Denmark, and Korea, boys outscored girls. In Latvia and New Zealand, girls outscored boys. In all the rest, including the U.S. (where girls had slightly higher scores) there were no statistically significant differences.

“Real-World” Challenge

PISA, which will be administered every three years, focuses on what 15-year-olds have learned in and out of school enabling them to perform such “real-world” tasks as reading a newspaper, interpreting charts and graphs, and solving practical problems. It will supplement, not replace, such measures of in-school learning as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which has been administered to samples of U.S. children the past 30 years.

Viewed through rose-colored lenses, the consistently middle-of-the-pack ranking for the U.S. on PISA data could be seen as good news. After all, a separate OECD study released a year ago found that among 18 industrialized nations the U.S. ranked dead last in the literacy of 16- to 25-year-old high school graduates who did not go on to post-secondary studies.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, however, would have none of equating mediocrity with social progress. “In the global economy,” he remarked, “these countries are our competitors. Average is not good enough for American kids.”

The combined reading literacy score for U.S. children was 504 (on a scale of 0 to 1000, with the average score being 500). Skills tested were the ability to retrieve information, interpret texts, and reflect on what had been read.

The 14 nations scoring higher in reading than the U.S. were Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Korea, United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Iceland, Norway, and France. The U.S. ranked 18th in math (with Japan, Korea, and New Zealand at the top), and 14th in science (with Korea, Japan, and Finland 1-2-3).

Bad Attitudes

PISA also sought to examine student attitudes toward learning. A perhaps telling finding is that only 30 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds regarded reading as a favorite hobby, a figure lower than that for most OECD countries. In Mexico, 62 percent of the students said reading is a favorite hobby.

In every one of the countries, females agreed more often than males that reading is a favorite hobby. In the U.S., 37 percent of females and just 22 percent of males gave reading that kind of priority in their lives.

In 2003, PISA will examine students’ ability to solve problems, and in 2006 it will look at students’ proficiency in using information and communications technologies. Reading, math, and science will continue to be assessed as well in an attempt to develop trend lines useful to the participating countries.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His e-mail address is [email protected].

For more information …

The report from the Program for International Student Assessment, Outcomes of Learning: Results From the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment of 15-Year-Olds in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy, is available for downloading at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa.