Educational Score Cards Give U.S. Bad Grades

By O'Leary, Mick | Information Today, May 2010 | Go to article overview

Educational Score Cards Give U.S. Bad Grades


O'Leary, Mick, Information Today


America's educational system is under siege, and everyone is to blame for its problems. The federal government is doing too much or too little. Perhaps the jaded, unionized teachers are to blame, or maybe it's the meddlesome, politicized school boards. Parents complain when their children are expected to do homework. Even the kids are often lazy, whiny, and more interested in Facebook than in textbooks. The fuel for these accusations often stems from international comparisons of student performance, which generally show American students falling far behind their "peers" in other developed industrial countries and barely keeping ahead of deprived students in the developing world.

Although they are often used to buttress polemics, the educational score card databases are based on large volumes of conscientious, thorough, and systematic research. Conducted by respected government organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), these databases analyze numerous factors of school system performance and rank it by country or, in the U.S., by state. Their websites contain full-text reports, often with interactivity to support user-defined analysis.

International Score Cards

The most controversial and widely cited educational score cards compare elementary and secondary school systems by country. Depending upon country rank, the scores can cause celebration or lamentation. Although their intent is to improve school performance everywhere, their results are often cherry-picked for political purposes.

Program for International Student Assessment

Probably the most widely cited educational score card is PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). Almost 60 countries, including 30 OECD members, participate. PISAstudies, which were done in 2000, 2003, and 2006 (with 2009 results to be released in late 2010), examine performance of 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading, with separate rankings for each. Across all three areas, the top-performing countries are Finland, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Northern and Western European nations, and the English-speaking nations, especially Canada and New Zealand. Overall, U.S. students performed well-below OECD country average scores. But the U.S. was the only country that had substantial numbers of students performing at the highest and lowest levels.

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Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is a large-scale survey of mathematics and science performance by fourth graders and eighth graders. The survey is sponsored in the U.S. by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation and is sponsored globally by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. It covers fewer countries than PISA (36), but it has a larger percentage of poor countries. For both grade levels and in both subjects, the top school systems are located in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan. Just below these leaders is a medley of European and English-speaking countries--just barely including the U.S., which ranks between ninth and 12th in the four tests. This may seem to be a stronger performance than in PISA, but since TIMSS evaluates fewer and poorer countries, it's easier to be in the top 10--or just out of it.

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) covers reading achievement, attitudes, and behavior, and is coordinated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. The studies were conducted in 2001 and 2006. The 2006 study tested fourth graders in 45 education systems, including countries and subnational education systems such as Canadian provinces. The top PIRLS performers are more varied than in PISA and TIMSS. …

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