U.S. Test Scores Remain Stagnant While Other Countries See Rapid Rise

12/03/2013 05:00 am ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

At home, the story is the same -- but abroad, the landscape is shifting.

According to the latest results of a comprehensive set of international exams released Tuesday, America's teens have remained mid-pack among their peers worldwide and utterly stagnant in reading, math and science over the last 10 years.

But as America's 15-year-olds failed to improve on the Programme for International Student Assessment and East Asian countries maintained their top slots, other countries not generally known for their academic prowess -- many of whom have diverse and poor populations -- have become breakout stars of a sort. Poland, Germany and Ireland showed tremendous growth, and Vietnam, which administered the exam for the first time in 2012, wound up among the top-performing countries, eclipsing the U.S. in math and science. Results like these herald Sputnik moment-type fears, leading some officials to believe the U.S. is losing its competitive edge.

“While we are seeing some encouraging progress on many important measures, the United States’ performance on the 2012 PISA is a picture of educational stagnation. This is a reality at odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

“While average U.S. scores were not measurably different from any previous PISA administration, some other countries have made progress and surpassed us,” said Jack Buckley, who oversees the Education Department's research arm. “Ireland and Poland, for example, had average scores not measurably different than the U.S. in 2009, but have passed the U.S. in all three subjects.”

In fall 2012, the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development tested 510,000 students between ages 15 and 16 in 65 economies, including 34 OECD countries -- a sample that OECD says represents 28 million students. Among those 34 countries, the U.S. performed slightly below average in math, scoring 481, and ranked 26 (though the report notes that due to measurement error, the ranking could range from 23 to 29.) Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Korea and Japan came out on top, followed by such European countries as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Netherlands, Estonia, Finland and Poland. Peru, Indonesia, Qatar, Colombia and Jordan came in last.

In reading, the U.S. performed around the OECD average of 496, ranking 17 (or between 14 and 20) with an average score of 498. Again, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Korea, Finland, Ireland, Taiwan, Poland and Estonia came out on top, with Argentina, Albania, Kazakhstan, Qatar and Peru filling out the bottom.

The U.S. also came in around the OECD science average of 501, ranking 21 (between 17 and 25) with an average score of 497. Top scorers included Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Estonia, Korea, Vietnam, Poland and Canada. The lowest performers include Peru, Indonesia, Qatar, Albania and Tunisia.

Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida administered the tests separately -- in math, Massachusetts beat the U.S. average, scoring similarly to Germany and Poland; Connecticut scored higher than the U.S. average but not higher than the OECD average; and Florida, a favorite state of the education reform movement, performed lower than both, placing it between Israel and Croatia.

In the U.S., the lackluster results will be marked by great fanfare. On Tuesday, Andreas Schleicher, the OECD researcher who created the exam, will hand the results to Duncan, the education secretary, in a long, glitzy Newseum ceremony known as PISA Day.

As policymakers sought to make sense of the results, others urged caution about taking them too seriously. On Monday, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, published a blog post warning officials against drawing conclusions from a "horse race examination of these scores." EPI has argued that PISA oversampled students from low-income households in the U.S. in a way that has dinged American scores; OECD has pushed back on that assertion.

And the American Federation of Teachers union released a video anticipating the results, asserting that "many people use the ranking to claim public education in the U.S. is failing and push their corporate reform agenda."

Randi Weingarten, AFT's president, released a statement showing how the results bear out her agenda. "Today’s PISA results drive home what has become abundantly clear: While the intentions may have been good, a decade of top-down, test-based schooling created by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top -- focused on hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools -- has failed to improve the quality of American public education," she said. "Sadly, our nation has ignored the lessons from the high-performing nations."

Others took a more positive view. Wendy Kopp, the founder of Teach for America who now oversees the teacher-placement group's international umbrella, Teach For All, said the results gave her hope. "These results show us what's possible for countries to achieve, and they also show that some countries continue to improve, which should give us all a sense of possibility," she said. "That's where you can find the real insight."

Poland performed above the U.S. on average in all three subjects, and Ireland's performance levels are comparable to Finland's. "Poland has seen forward movement, raising performance and lowering the variability in performance between schools," Schleicher, the OECD researcher, said. In 1999, Poland launched a massive set of educational reforms, according to Schleicher. "We cannot say for sure whether it's those reforms that led to the kind of improvement that you have seen but ... it's a kind of plausible explanation. We have seen that kind of trajectory for a decade."

Journalist Amanda Ripley recently released a book, The Smartest Kids In The World, that followed American high school students who partook in exchange programs in Finland, Korea and Poland to better understand how those countries' education systems fare so well. "To see Polish students performing at the level of kids in Finland in math is remarkable, given that they have a 16 percent child poverty rate," she said. "It's a long way from Finland in every way."

One of Poland's reforms, she said, included holding all students to higher standards, a move somewhat similar to the Common Core standards now being implemented in U.S. schools. "One could look at this as an argument for the Common Core -- the standards are more rigorous, and more aligned with international norms," Ripley said. "But it depends on whether teachers are trained and prepared."

Some are skeptical of the broader significance of the results. "Do I want Israel's economy, the American economy or Belgium's economy? Or Taiwan, where the fertility rate is 1 percent?" asked Mark Schneider, a vice president at the American Institutes of Research who previously oversaw the Education Department's research arm. "In Korea, they're closing schools because they don't have enough kids, they have this whole inverted age pyramid and they're going to run into giant problems. The U.S. has a dramatically growing population, enormous wealth and entrepreneurial spirit."

Schneider added, "PISA's not the thing that matters at all. You want to know you're not Montenegro or Kazakhstan -- then you're okay. What would we prefer -- high PISA scores or Silicon Valley?"

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that 28 million students took PISA in 2012, but 510,000 students took the exam, a sample OECD says represents the performance of 28 million students.

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