What Does it Mean That American Students are Barely Average?

U.S. students were unimpressive -- yet again -- in a major international assessment. What that means depends on who you ask.

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The mediocre performance of American students on an international math, science and reading exam has become the latest front in the battle over standardized testing and other education reform measures championed by President Obama.

The latest results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released this week and the U.S. fared poorly, hovering around average in reading and science and below average in math. Those scores, from the 2012 exam, are consistent with the country’s performance since the tri-annual test of 15-year-olds started in 2000.

Characterizing the results as a “picture of stagnation,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said they underscore the importance of the administration’s educational agenda. “We must invest in early education, raise the academic standards, make college affordable, and recruit top-notch teachers,” he told the Associated Press.

To some educators, however, the assessment is another indicator that the Obama administration’s education policy is not working. They say signature program Race to the Top, which aims to increase student performance through a combination of incentives and test-based accountability measures, have done little to improve student learning.

“Testing has pretty much been embedded our federal policy for past 10 years,” says Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers and frequent critic of the administration’s education policy. “You can easily say that that strategy doesn’t move the needle in the United States of America.”

The performance of American students has barely budged since the PISA exam began. U.S. Students once again scored below  the international average in math and near it in reading and science, as had been the case since 2003. (It bears mention that China only shares data from certain cities, which are not representative of the entire country.) Meanwhile, some 25 of the countries where assessments are distributed improved math scores and 32 improved reading from 2003 to 2013.

Michael Petrilli of the Fordham Institute for Excellence in Education, a pro-reform think tank, says that the Common Core standards being implemented across the country may be the key to improving performance.

“If the new standards lead to positive changes it will eventually show up on these kind of exams,” Petrilli told TIME. “We have a lot of work still to do to change teacher practice and provide the kind of teaching and learning that will improve performance on these kind of tests.”

To critics of the reliance on standardized testing, the problem is a matter of emphasizing the wrong metrics. Equal access to high quality education, they argue, is the key to improving student learning.

“We’ve been focused on test-based accountability, but testing does not equal accountability,” Linda Darling Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University, said at an event on the results in Washington on Tuesday. “Accountability is when you have a system that works for each and every child.”

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development released a report on the effect of socioeconomic disadvantages on student outcomes in the 2012 PISA assessment. Around the world, wealthier students scored 39 points higher in math than their poorer counterparts. But some countries have closed the gap.

In Korea, Singapore, and Vietnam 13% of students facing poor socioeconomic conditions perform among the top 25% in their country in math, science, and reading. Germany, Mexico and Turkey all narrowed the gap between socioeconomic status and performance between 2003 and 2012. According to PISA, educational opportunities for disadvantaged American students are average compared to the rest of the world.

“One of the findings in the PISA report is we’re a high spending country on education, about fifth in the world,” Darling-Hammond said. “But we don’t spend our money on the right things, we’re spending inequitably.”

Of course, the entire country got the equivalent of “C,” not just students from underserved schools.

“Poverty is certainly a factor,” Petrilli said. “But that does not explain why there is underperformance across the spectrum of kids. The affluent are doing just as poorly.”