PISA Test Results Through the Lens of Poverty

PISA, the Program for International Student Assessment, released results last month, and you would have thought the sky was falling if you listened to our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.  PISA is an international assessment that is administered to 15 year-old students in participating countries. The PISA assessment has been administered in 200020032006 and 2009.  The 2009 test results were released in December 2010.  In 2009, 65 countries participated in the test. In general average scores are used to make comparisons among countries.  The U.S. average was 502 (OECD average was 501).   According to the 2009 report, among the other 64 countries and education systems, 18 had higher average scores, 33 had lower average scores, and 13 had average scores that were not measurably different from the U.S. average score.  If we rank order the countries according to average test score, the U.S. is in 19th place, and using the sports analogy, we are not at the top, and that that’s what causes politicians, corporate leaders, and state departments to make dire assessments of  the quality of American education.  The leaders of the U.S. government actually said that these test results (coming in 19th) was a “sputnik momement.”

Sputnik moment or not, this is the predicted reaction of “leaders” when ever international (or national) test results are released.  In fact, the headlines of many nations’ national newspapers often are headlined with claims that the “sky is falling” and that the educational system is a failure.  Politicians, corporate heads, and others rush to make judgements, and lead their nations down paths that are harmful to the educational systems they claim is failing.

One problem here is the over reliance on test scores to make judgements about systems of education that in some cases are huge (the U.S. has 15,000 different school districts), very small (Singapore is City-State, perhaps comparable to one U.S. district), distinctly different in terms of how many students live in poverty, differences in the way schools are funded, teachers prepared, and curriculum developed and implemented.

The current wave of “reform” based on core standards, and student test scores would have us believe that the major factor influencing the performance of students is the quality of the teacher in the classroom.  Out-of school factors, and the variety of differences among school leadership, curriculum, and teacher collaboration are not considered.  If educators bring up the issue of the effects of poverty on student achievement, education leaders such as Joe Klein, formerly of the NYC schools, and Michelle Ree, formerly of the D.C. schools insist that performance in school by all students should be the result of the effectiveness of the teacher; poverty levels should have no effect.  Nonsense.

In an extremely interesting analysis of the latest PISA test results, Mel Riddle, in his blog post, the Princpal Difference, reported the results of a different analysis by National Association of Secondary Schools Executive Director, Dr. Gerold Tirozzi.  Tirozzi “took a closer look at how the U.S. reading scores compared with the rest of the world’s, overlaying it with the statistics on how many of the tested students are in the government’s free and reduced lunched program for students below the poverty line,” according to Cynthia McCabe.  The analysis led to this finding:

  • In schools where less than 10 percent of students get free or reduced lunch, the reading score is 551. That would place those U.S. students at No. 2 on the international ranking for reading, just behind Shanghai, China which topped the ranking with a score of 556.
  • Of all the nations participating in the PISA assessment, the U.S. has, by far, the largest number of students living in poverty–21.7%. The next closest nations in terms of poverty levels are the United Kingdom and New Zealand have poverty rates that are 75% of ours.
  • U.S. students in schools with 10% or less poverty are number one country in the world.
  • U.S. students in schools with 10-24.9% poverty are third behind Korea, and Finland.
  • U.S. students in schools with 25-50% poverty are tenth in the world.

Riddle’s analysis is an important contribution to the conversation about the meaning and implications PISA-type test results.  As he says: It’s Poverty Not Stupid.  American schools have been maligned by politicians and especially corporate leaders such as Bill Gates, and for the last decade, starting with the NCLB Act, the Race to the Top, the parallel development by the National Governor’s Association of the Common Core Stands, and the movement to link teacher evaluation to the student test scores—we are running down (or up) a path that will do great harm to the American public school system.

About Jack Hassard

Jack Hassard is a writer, a former high school teacher, and Professor Emeritus of Science Education, Georgia State University.

...and I'M STILL FOR HER.

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