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PISA Is a Wake-up Call but to Whom and For What?

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The latest international test scores are in, and the United States hasn't made much progress on its mediocre results from 2010. Every three years, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development releases its Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) data based on international tests in reading, science and math, taken by 500,000 15-year-old students in 65 countries. These are the most influential rankings in international education, comparing Europe, North and South America, Australasia, parts of the Middle East and Asia and one African country, Tunisia. Asian students dominated the top rankings, with those in Shanghai, China, scoring the highest marks across the board. The United States showed little change, but its rankings have fallen as other countries have done better. This year it was even surpassed by a newcomer to the test -- Vietnam.

In scores for reading, Shanghai came in first, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Ireland, Taiwan, Canada and Poland. In science, Shanghai was first again, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Finland, Estonia, South Korea, Vietnam, Poland and Canada. In math, Shanghai came in first, followed by Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Macao, Japan, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Netherlands.

American 15 year-olds ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math, among other developed nations. Among all 65 countries, they ranked 24th in reading, 28th in science and 36th in math.

Eighteen education systems had higher average scores than the United States in all three subjects: Australia, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, Liechtenstein, Macao, Netherlands, New Zealand, Poland, Republic of Korea, Shanghai-China, Singapore and Switzerland. The U.S. states Massachusetts and Connecticut also had higher average scores than the United States in all three subjects.

There are plenty of stories to be found on the "wake-up call" that's needed (but we said the same thing three years ago), but what, exactly, are we being called to "wake up" to? As a parent and business person who advocates for greater global awareness and more foreign language learning in our schools, a few things stand out.

First, these tests don't measure cross-cultural competency and foreign language skills. These are two of the most important 21st century skills young professionals will need to succeed in the global marketplace, no matter what field they enter.

Second, with the new Common Core, we have a strategy and plan to improve education -- one that will, arguably, improve our test scores -- and we need to give it time to show results.

Third, as a nation we haven't changed the way we think about teachers or the education system, just incorporated more "testing" of our teachers based on the scores their students achieve.

It seems to me that in critiquing the scores, we're not addressing the root of the problem, which is how to ensure American students can compete with their peers around the world FOR JOBS. Not which country has the highest-scoring 15-year-olds, which is meaningless without context. I recommend looking beyond the scores at what else other countries -- such as Finland did years ago, and Poland and Ireland have done most recently -- are doing to be sure we aren't left in the dust at job fairs.

  • Mandate foreign language learning: 21 of the top 25 industrialized countries begin teaching foreign language in elementary school. Studies show that foreign language learning enhances cognitive abilities and improves test score in reading and math. Perhaps there is a link, and the United States should consider incorporating foreign language learning for all beginning in first grade. (At present, only 16 states mandate any such learning at all mostly starting in secondary school).
  • Demonstrate that we value excellent teaching: One of the commonalities among the leading scorers is the value placed on the teaching profession in that country. Teachers are well-respected and considered top in their field, paid very well and the teaching certification process is quite difficult. It isn't quite that way in the U.S. If we want world-class students then we must employ world-class teachers, which means revamping the teaching certification process so that the bar is set much higher, including proficiency in a second language and mandatory study abroad, and increase the pay for our teachers to reflect the value we place in their critically important work.
  • Keep it all in perspective: Although South Korea consistently ranks in the top PISA scorers, students there spend an average of 12 hours a day doing school work, whereas those in Finland seem to have a healthy balance of school work and play. If we want to keep our creative juices flowing so the innovations keep coming, we cannot turn our students into robotic test takers.

Many people have pointed out that these tests don't measure critical thinking skills or innovation, traits that Americans have been traditionally known for possessing, along with our entrepreneurial drive. But the solution to the problem isn't criticizing the tests or even working to increase our test scores per se, but to do what is necessary to give American students the best possible chance for a successful job or career in a globalized world. Our kids are counting on us to do what's right for them.

Stacie Nevadomski Berdan is the coauthor, most recently, of Raising Global Children: Ways Parents Can Help Our Children Grow Up Ready to Succeed in a Multicultural Global Economy (ACTFL, November 2013).