Behind Test Scores: Finland Down, U.S. Stagnant For A Decade. Why?

continents-975929_1920The debate rages on about U.S. education.  Some say the U.S. population is different than in countries with higher achievement scores.  It all depends upon how you look at it, according to the latest N.Y. Times article:  America’s Schools are Lagging: Maybe It’s Not the Schools. 

The controversy is interesting.  Do people with low incomes in the U.S. live better than people in other developed countries?  How different are these countries based on socio-economic characteristics?  How different are their educational systems?

The PISA report, the international test for fifteen year-old students on which cross country comparisons are made, states that U.S. scores have not improved over the last decade.   The U.S. may be stagnating while some countries are showing strong improvement (but not Finland).  Only 2% of U.S. students reached the highest level of proficiency while the average for all countries is 3%.  The U.S. does not make it to the top 25 in math or the top 15 in reading even after adjustments for poverty and diversity.  The scores of low income Americans, moreover, are exceedingly low.

The New York Times article highlights some features of U.S. education that may contribute to lower achievement scores.  These come from the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) that sponsors the international PISA exam.  OECD’s top education expert is quoted as saying that the U.S. is not at any particular disadvantage based on poverty rates.   He points to weaknesses within the U.S. system that are likely culprits for lower scores e.g.

  • The achievement gap widens as students progress through school.
  • There is a wide disparity in resources in school financing across and within states due to funding based on local property taxes.
  • Informal tracking by grouping children into gifted classes and holding less able students back a year decreases equal access to high quality courses.
  • Teachers are paid poorly compared to other occupations.  The best teachers are not deployed to the poorest schools.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) released a report with a different perspective.  The authors argue that international comparisons have limited validity.  Each nation sets it own definition of poverty and may have more or less cultural homogeneity due to differences in immigration policies and other socio economic factors such as income distribution.  The researchers state that comparisons among states in the U.S. are more meaningful.  They argue that inappropriate comparisons of test results may lead policy makers to “pursue inappropriate and even harmful policies that change aspects of U.S. education that are working well and neglect aspects that are working poorly.”

While both sides agree that U.S. students score in the middle of the range of other developed countries, when adjusted for poverty, differences between the U.S. and other high performing countries are much smaller.

Defining poverty is a tricky business.  If the education level of mothers and the number of books in the home are used as indicators, the EPI reports that students in the U.S. score as well in reading but not in mathematics as in other developed countries.  This is especially true for middle and highly advantaged students.

There  is more to this story.  I compared the percentages of immigrant and low income families in several countries.  I also looked at similar data for states in the U.S.  Some things I did not know, only suspected.  I will share them in the next post.



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