PISA in Context

By Mamadou Ndiaye
February 26, 2014

The confetti has been swept up, the cheering quieted, and the headaches dissipated. New Year’s celebrations? No, the release of the PISA 2012 results.

While some countries celebrated their glowing results, others, like the United States, swallowed pangs of disappointment. Though much of the furor has now died down, the implications and lessons of PISA are still fresh on our minds as we launch the next phase of Students at the Center.

For starters, PISA is a test administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to 15-year-olds in more than 60 countries around the world. Just like in previous years, U.S. 15-year-olds overall did not do well—especially in math—when compared to their counterparts in other industrialized countries and just like in previous years, there is a fierce debate about how to interpret the test and what it reveals about the U.S. educational system.

To answer the question of why American students continue to underperform on the PISA test, some point to a persisting achievement gap that is aggravated by growing income inequality and school segregation. Others invoke misguided educational policy reforms that rely too heavily on testing and inadequate educational practices.

There is another group that for a long time has pooh-poohed PISA as a meaningless test that ultimately does not matter because the United States has persistently led the world in scientific and technological innovation despite its long track record as an underperformer since the test was launched in the 1960s. The PISA test, these detractors say, is a poor gauge of students’ level of preparation for the real world and a country’s potential for innovation. For the United States, other factors, such as its ability to attract talented foreigners to immigrate to the country, are much more important and will no doubt fill the gap in test scores.

I beg to differ. First of all, PISA does not just require students to select an answer or recall information; it actually measures the extent to which students engage in “deeper learning,” which is their ability to use knowledge to solve complex problems and communicate effectively in the real world.  Second, one could reasonably make a connection between the countries with the highest scores—Shanghai China, Singapore, South Korea, Finland—to their achievements in terms of economic progress. It is no coincidence that these countries have each reached remarkable levels of socioeconomic development in just a few decades and in fact lead the world in research and innovation in many areas of science and technology. Third, by comparing high and low performers in each subject area, PISA scores help highlight the achievement gap in each country, which can inform educational policy making. Finally, we can’t forever rely on importing the world’s brightest minds to come and work here. While U.S. institutions of higher education continue to draw record numbers of foreigners, more and more of them are choosing to return to their home countries after graduating.

It is true that the American performance on the PISA test has not been an accurate predictor of our economic progress over the years. However, PISA scores can teach us a great deal about what works in education reform. We will be exploring such issues in our new Students at the Center series on deeper learning. If the outcome of poor PISA scores is that U.S. education leaders embrace and implement deeper learning, then it’s a test for students that is well worth taking.

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