Thursday, August 18, 2011

How Your State’s Students Compare with Those from Other Countries

US students have been participating in a measurement of reading and mathematics skills administered by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as part of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). This PISA test can be used to evaluate the students and school systems as to their status within the body of nations, and with regard to progress over time. A recent study by Paul E. Peterson, Ludger Woessmann, Eric A. Hanushek, and Carlos Xabel Lastra-Anadon provides an analysis of the most recent data available. This would correspond to the high school class of 2011 being tested at the age of fifteen.

It has long been noted that US schools do not do as well as one would have hoped. The authors provide some insight into relevant factors that might affect measurements of proficiency. Perhaps of most interest, the scores for students from the individual states in the US are broken out for comparison.

The US has its own standard for proficiency developed by the Department of education and is referred to as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The authors of the article convert the NAEP assessment into a PISA score equivalent to arrive at the proficiency numbers that are presented. Given that, the results for math skills are:

“....U.S. students in the Class of 2011, with a 32 percent proficiency rate, came in 32nd among the nations that participated in PISA. Performance levels among the countries ranked 23rd to 31st are not significantly different from that of the U.S. in a statistical sense, yet 22 countries do significantly outperform the United States in the share of students reaching the proficiency level in math.”

The results for reading skills are:

“The U.S. proficiency rate in reading, at 31 percent, compares reasonably well to those of most European countries other than Finland. It takes 17th place among the nations of the world, and only the top 10 countries on PISA outperform the United States by a statistically significant amount.”

In assessing the performance of the US students, a number of factors must be taken into account. The authors point out the effects of ethnicity on the scores.

“The percentage proficient in the United States varies considerably among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. While 42 percent of white students were identified as proficient in math, only 11 percent of African American students, 15 percent of Hispanic students, and 16 percent of Native Americans were so identified. Fifty percent of students with an ethnic background from Asia and the Pacific Islands, however, were proficient in math, placing them at a level comparable to students in Belgium, Canada, and Japan.”

“In reading, 40 percent of white students and 41 percent of those from Asia and the Pacific Islands were identified as proficient. Only 13 percent of African American students, 5 percent of Hispanic students, and 18 percent of Native American students were so identified.”

One might be tempted to assume that excluding minority scores would make a significant difference in US performance.

“While the 42 percent math efficiency rate for U.S. white students is considerably higher than that of African American and Hispanic students, they are still surpassed by all students in 16 other countries. White students in the United States trail well behind all students in Korea, Japan, Finland, Germany, Belgium, and Canada.”

It is highly misleading to try to take an average of all the scores from the various states and try to interpret it as a reading of a national characteristic. The state scores are all over the spectrum. What does an average math proficiency mean when the scores vary from about 50 percent to less than 10 percent? There are states where the results would appear to be dominated by large minority populations, but that is less an explanation than an accusation. Why do we have such a variance in results for minorities, and why do we have so much variation from state to state? How can we call ourselves a country when we provide educations that are consistent both with the best in the world and with the worst in the world? Many thanks to the authors for providing this breakout of the data. There is much to ponder here.

It was interesting to note that Finland shows up near the top of both lists. The only other list I can recall seeing Finland at the top of was that for per-capita coffee consumption. It could be the Finns are on to something here. Perhaps after another cup or two all of this will make more sense.

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