Leaning Tower of PISA

, Bethany Stotts, Leave a comment

The recently-released 2006 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results have been heralded by some as proving that American science and math illiteracy are endangering American competitiveness abroad, and will lead to an economic crisis within the next generation. The results rank the U.S. 21 out of the 30 advanced industrial Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member countries, and American students scored an average 489 points on the combined science literacy scale compared to the 500-point OECD average.

In response to these gloomy results, Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings announced on December 4th that the 2006 PISA results reinforced the need for school reform according to “what President Bush has long been advocating for: more rigor in our nation’s high schools; additional resources for advanced courses to prepare students for college-level studies; and stronger math and science education.” She states that President Bush’s reform initiatives such as No Child Left Behind, increased state accountability, and the National Math Panel will all improve America’s future scientific success.

However, Newt Gingrich and Roy Romer disagree that current reforms have enhanced America’s economic strength, arguing in their December Washington Times editorial “Losing the Race” that the PISA results show “America is falling behind its global competitors and the economic security of our children is at risk.” They add, “If an American corporation produced such mediocre outcomes, then the CEO would be fired immediately. Yet, American schools continue to churn out below-average students with no fear of consequences.”

However, a closer analysis of the PISA results reveals mixed results about the United States’ global competitiveness. America’s brightest, 90th-percentile students remain above the OECD average in combined science skills yet fall behind in math. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) “Highlights from 2006” report notes that “When comparing the performance of the highest achieving students— those at the 90th percentile—there was no measurable difference between the average score of U.S. students (628) compared to the OECD average (622) on the combined science literacy scale.” According to the NCES report, only six OECD nations—Australia, Canada, Finland, Japan, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom— had a higher percentage of their population achieving level 6 proficiency in combined science skills than the U.S. In other words, America’s brightest scientific young minds continue to compete with other countries, while the overall population, on average, has substandard science skills. However, America’s math students continue to score well below the OECD average, with the average American student scoring 24 points lower on math than students in industrialized, OECD countries.

Contrary to the popular understanding that teenagers in the United States are necessarily inept at science, America’s low OECD ranking can be at least partially attributed to a large achievement gap between minorities and whites. America’s 2006 combined science scores follow a strict ethnic hierarchy, which the NCES notes is similar to the 2000 and 2003 PISA results. Whites and Asians typically attained a level 3 proficiency for the combined sciences. Hispanics, American Indians, Alaskan natives, and Pacific Islanders scored, on average, in the level 2 proficiency. Blacks were likely to only attain an upper-level 1 proficiency, the most basic of levels presented.

According to the NCES report, “on the combined science literacy scales, Black… students, Hispanic students, and American Indian/Alaska Native…students scored below the OECD average, while scores for White (non-Hispanic) students were above the OECD average.” In fact, the average science skill disparity between blacks and whites is 114 points, with whites scoring 523 points. This places the average black (non-Hispanic) American science skills (409) below 19 non-OECD jurisdictions also measured during the 2006 PISA, including the Republic of Serbia (436), Uruguay (428), Jordan (422), and Bulgaria (434).

Bethany Stotts is a Staff Writer at Accuracy in Academia.