A closer look at standardized test scores

Updated: 2013-12-05 07:22

By Kelly Chung Dawson in New York (China Daily USA)

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The last time the results of the standardized Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released in 2010, international coverage focused on the high performance of Chinese students, who in their first year of participation in the test scored above any other country's students across all subjects. Education experts bemoaned the low scores of American students, citing the disparity in results as further evidence of China's rise. US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called it a "wake-up call".

The results of the most recent test are out now, and once again, Chinese students have far outperformed their American peers. But the results are only part of the picture, and experts argue that the scores are misleading.

Administered by the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development every three years in 66 countries, the test assesses 15-year-old students in reading, math and science.

According to OECD, only 2 percent of American students passed the highest level of math performance, while 30 percent of students in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei reached that level.

In reading, Chinese students averaged 570 (compared to an international average of 496); 613 in math (with an international average of 494); and 580 in science (compared to an international average of 501). In comparison, American students averaged 498 in reading; 481 in math; and 580 in science.

"The big picture of US performance on the 2012 PISA is straightforward and stark," Duncan said this week. "It is the picture of educational stagnation. Our students are basically losing ground. We're running in place, as other high performing countries start to lap us."

It wasn't all bad news for American students: college enrollment is up among Hispanic students, reading and math scores for 4th and 8th graders rose in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, and fewer students are dropping out.

But the PISA scores are sobering, Duncan said.

"Some skeptics note that… our lackluster performance is no big deal because American workers manage to be highly productive, and have been leaders in entrepreneurship and innovation," Duncan said. "What those skeptics fail to recognize is that education plays a much bigger role today in propelling economic growth than in the 1960s or the 1980s. Education is the new currency, and this currency is recognized internationally."

But the low averages in the US are in part indicative of a wide gap between high- and low-income areas and schools, an important distinction between scores collected in the US and China.

For unexplained reasons, OECD allows China to limit the release of scores to only Shanghai, where 84 percent of high school graduates go to university. In contrast, 24 percent of students nationwide attend college. The city's GDP is more than double of the national average, and Shanghai students are more likely to receive tutoring than in other cities, according to Tom Loveless, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institute.

PISA is actually administered in 12 provinces in China, but the results from outside of Shanghai are not released. (Hong Kong sends its own scores, as a special administrative region.)

In an interview with The Financial Times, OECD official Andreas Schleicher reported that test scores in poor areas were not far below those of Shanghai, but did not explain why those results were not public.

Also skewing the results is the fact that in order to take the test at all, students must be enrolled in school. With high school attendance rates as low as 40 percent in rural areas of China and 66 percent of all children in China living in rural areas, one can assume that the test results are not representative of the school-age population at large, Loveless said.

However, it should be noted that even among high-income areas of the US, students were outpaced by their Chinese peers, Duncan said.

Shanghai's education system — and the scores turned in by its students — is representative of China's goals for the future, experts say. The city claims 100 percent primary and junior high school enrollment, and in 2008 encouraged schools to create individual curriculums tailored to their student bodies. In some schools this has included the introduction of creative electives and courses that promote creative thinking.

"It is no coincidence that the countries with the strongest PISA scores also have rapidly growing economies," said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, in an official statement. "Global leaders recognize that in order to continue strong economic expansion, they must invest in their youngest learners."

Contact the writer at kdawson@chindailyusa.com