By Motoko Rich
Fifteen-year-olds in the United States score in the middle of the developed world in reading and science while lagging in math, according to international standardized test results released Tuesday.
While the performance of American students who took the exams last year differed little from the performance of those tested in 2009, the last time the exams were administered, several comparable countries — including Ireland and Poland — pulled ahead this time.
As in previous years, the scores of students in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea put those school systems at the top of the rankings for math, science and reading. Finland, a darling of educators, slid in all subjects but continued to outperform the averages, and the United States.
The Program for International Student Assessment, commonly known as PISA, was administered to 15-year-olds in 65 countries and school systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that includes the world’s wealthiest nations. Just over 6,100 American students took the exams.
In the midst of increasingly polarized discussions about public education, the scores set off a familiar round of hand-wringing, blaming and credit-taking.
“The United States’ standings haven’t improved dramatically because we as a nation haven’t addressed the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance — the effects of poverty on students,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in a statement.
Some scholars warned that the lagging performance of American students would eventually lead to economic torpor. “Our economy has still been strong because we have a very good economic system that is able to overcome the deficiencies of our education system,” said Eric A. Hanushek, an economist at Stanford University. “But increasingly, we have to rely on the skills of our work force, and if we don’t improve that, we’re going to be slipping.”
The United States’ underperformance was particularly striking in math, where 29 countries or education systems had higher test scores. In science, students in 22 countries did better than Americans, and in reading, 19 countries.
The results painted a slightly different picture from tests administered to fourth and eighth graders in 2011 through the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. Those results indicated that the United States was about on par with international averages.
But both exams showed that the percentage of students who scored at the highest levels in math and science was much greater in several Asian and European countries.
In the United States, just 9 percent of 15-year-olds scored in the top two levels of proficiency in math, compared with an average of 13 percent among industrialized nations and as high as 55 percent in Shanghai, 40 percent in Singapore, and 17 percent in Germany and Poland.
Jack Buckley, the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, noted that American students from families with incomes in the highest quartile did not perform as well as students with similar backgrounds in other countries.
Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the liberal Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the UC Berkeley School of Law, said he put little stock in the PISA results. He said educators and academics should “stop hyperventilating” about international test rankings, particularly given that students are already graduating from college at higher rates than can be absorbed by the labor market.
Others criticized recent efforts to reform public education by using measures like student test scores to evaluate teachers. Such policies “contribute to an environment in which young people who are making decisions as to whether they can go to work at a place like Google or the school down the street simply won’t consider going into teaching,” said Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a nonprofit think tank.
An increasingly vocal group of parents, teachers, union leaders and others have also objected to a focus on standardized tests at the expense of values like creativity.
“The question is, can we walk and chew gum at the same time?” said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group. “There’s no reason why we can’t keep the creativity that we value while also teaching kids how to do math better.”