Policy Analysis

U.S. Lags Behind China on PISA Exams

December 21, 2010  |  Kristopher Larsen

China scored at the top of the latest edition of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test scores [1], scoring far above the other 65 participating countries and crushing the past leader Finland. And, yes, the United States continues to struggle in all three assessments placing 23rd in science, 17th in reading (both scores reflecting the international average in those subjects), and 32nd in math (far below the average). [2] Five years after Rising Above the Gathering Storm [3] warned that our educational system was not preparing the next generation of students to compete on an international stage, a finding reinforced by this year’s follow-up report [4], the United States has made minimal gains.

Of course, like all tests or games, there are ways to “play” this test and improve your results. The United States’ score is based on a sampling of approximately 5,000 students from across the country in urban, suburban and rural school districts. China “gamed” the system to a degree by selecting all their students from Shanghai, China’s most populous city and one of its most advanced. An argument could be made that, by ignoring their poorer, rural students, China has artificially inflated their scores. So, of course, the United States is going to score lower when we sample the entirety of our diverse student population, right? If we only compared students from the most-achieving state, Massachusetts, and ignore those from lower-achieving Mississippi, we wouldn’t have to be so embarrassed by these results, right?

Economist Eric Hanushek and his colleagues from Stanford University completed that exact analysis. Unfortunately, even Massachusetts students fall outside the top 15 internationally in their math proficiency. Mississippi comes in at 93rd overall [5]. There is a Category Five [4] storm raging in this country, and we haven’t even begun to fill the sandbags, let alone rescue those who are in danger of being swept away.


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