U.S. teens

Widen­ing gulf in Amer­ica be­tween stu­dents who do well and poorly on test

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY MO­RIAH BALINGIT AND AN­DREW VAN DAM mo­[email protected]­post.com an­drew.van­[email protected]­post.com

con­tinue to lag be­hind their peers in East Asia and Europe in read­ing, math and sci­ence, ac­cord­ing to the re­sults of an in­ter­na­tional exam.

Teenagers in the United States con­tinue to lag be­hind their peers in East Asia and Europe in read­ing, math and sci­ence, ac­cord­ing to re­sults of an in­ter­na­tional exam that sug­gest U.S. schools are not do­ing enough to pre­pare young peo­ple for the com­pet­i­tive global econ­omy.

The re­sults of the Pro­gram for In­ter­na­tional Stu­dent As­sess­ment — widely known as PISA — were re­leased Tues­day and show widen­ing dis­par­i­ties be­tween high- and low-per­form­ing stu­dents in the United States, adding to a grow­ing body of ev­i­dence show­ing wors­en­ing in­equity in public schools.

The exam was first ad­min­is­tered in 2000 to mea­sure the per­for­mance of 15-year-olds in the 35 in­dus­tri­al­ized coun­tries of the Or­ga­ni­za­tion for Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion and De­vel­op­ment (OECD) and has been ad­min­is­tered ev­ery three years since. It has ex­panded be­yond the 35 mem­ber coun­tries. In 2018, 600,000 stu­dents from 79 coun­tries took the exam.

And for about as long, the exam has faced a cho­rus of skep­tics who cau­tion read­ing too deeply in to the re­sults. Stu­dents are not pe­nal­ized for per­form­ing poorly and never see their re­sults, and stu­dents in the United States tend to be less mo­ti­vated to per­form well on it com­pared with teens in other coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to re­cent stud­ies.

“We need to in­ter­pret these scores with cau­tion,” Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Diego economist Sally Sad­off said. “Peo­ple wring their hands when they see these scores and say the U.S. is fall­ing be­hind, and that may be true, but we want to cau­tion that these test scores are not a pure mea­sure of stu­dents’ abil­ity, knowl­edge and learn­ing.”

Read­ing and math scores for U.S. stu­dents have not changed sig­nif­i­cantly since the exam de­buted, while there have been some im­prove­ments in sci­ence. That trend con­tin­ued in 2018, when stu­dent scores across all three sub­jects were vir­tu­ally un­changed from 2015.

Sev­eral coun­tries lost ground, boost­ing the rank­ing of the United States, which ranked eighth in read­ing and 11th in sci­ence. Its math score — be­low the av­er­age for other coun­tries in the OECD — put it at 30th in the world, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics.

Peggy G. Carr, as­so­ciate com­mis­sioner of the as­sess­ment di­vi­sion at the Na­tional Cen­ter for Ed­u­ca­tion Sta­tis­tics, said the re­sults sent an un­mis­tak­able mes­sage that U.S. stu­dents are in trou­ble when it comes to how they per­form in math rel­a­tive to their in­ter­na­tional peers. “The rankings are telling,” Carr said.

The re­sults are just the lat­est sign of grow­ing dis­par­i­ties in aca­demic per­for­mance. On the Na­tional As­sess­ment of Ed­u­ca­tional Progress, an exam given to stu­dents to gauge the na­tion’s aca­demic per­for­mance, scores tum­bled for fourth- and eighth-graders this year in read­ing. Eighth-graders lost ground in 30 states. Low-per­form­ing read­ers slipped even more than their higher-per­form­ing peers. There were similarly wor­ri­some re­sults in 2018 on the na­tional as­sess­ment test, when scores re­mained con­stant but lower-per­form­ing stu­dents lost ground.

And three years ago, scores for U.S. fourth-graders on a global lit­er­acy as­sess­ment fell, with the low­est-per­form­ing stu­dents los­ing the most ground.

“That should throw up red flags for ev­ery­one,” Carr said.

“Should we be wor­ried about this?” said An­dreas Sch­le­icher, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion and skills at the OECD. “I do think so, be­cause . . . our la­bor mar­kets were a lot more tol­er­ant of ed­u­ca­tional fail­ure in the past than they are now. So I think stu­dents who do not make the grade face pretty grim prospects.”

The exam is de­signed to ac­cu­rately gauge the abil­i­ties of stu­dents from coun­try to coun­try be­cause it is low-stakes, mean­ing more af­flu­ent stu­dents do not have an in­cen­tive to pay for spe­cial test prepa­ra­tion. But those ad­min­is­ter­ing the ex­ams to teenagers have en­coun­tered se­ri­ous mo­ti­va­tion is­sues. Econ­o­mists have found mount­ing ev­i­dence that the gap in scores be­tween coun­tries re­flects a gap in ef­fort as much as it does a gap in achieve­ment. By both mea­sures, the United States lags be­hind.

In one ex­per­i­ment, re­searchers found that U.S. stu­dents were far more re­spon­sive when they were of­fered money for cor­rect an­swers than stu­dents in Shang­hai. The re­sults sug­gest U.S. stu­dents are in­trin­si­cally less mo­ti­vated to do well on such as­sess­ments.

Other re­searchers have pro­duced sim­i­lar re­sults by pin­point­ing the slack­ers among the hundreds of thou­sands of stu­dents who took the com­put­er­ized ver­sion of the test, and ad­just­ing the re­sults ac­cord­ingly.

“Coun­tries dif­fer a lot by this de­gree of non-se­ri­ous­ness,” said

Jin­wen Wang, a doc­toral stu­dent at Penn­syl­va­nia State Univer­sity who has stud­ied the phe­nom­e­non. “As a re­sult, the rankings paint a dis­torted pic­ture of where coun­tries stand in both ab­so­lute and rel­a­tive terms.”

Dif­fer­ences in ef­fort ex­plained be­tween 32 per­cent and 38 per­cent of the in­ter­na­tional dif­fer­ences in PISA scores in 2009, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Jour­nal of Hu­man Cap­i­tal anal­y­sis.

The big­gest prob­lem was stu­dents who never en­gaged with the exam, which econ­o­mists mea­sured in part by look­ing at stu­dents’ ef­fort in a fol­low-up sur­vey. The sec­ond big­gest fac­tor? A lack of test en­durance.

In some coun­tries, such as Spain, per­for­mance be­gan high, but fell quickly. Oth­ers, such as South Korea, be­gan in the mid­dle of the pack but, through con­sis­tent ef­fort, emerged near the top. The United States fits some­where be­tween the ex­tremes.

“How much ef­fort kids put on this type of as­sess­ment might be cap­tur­ing what we call char­ac­ter skills, like con­sci­en­tious­ness and self-con­trol, that re­search has found is very im­por­tant for lat­er­life out­comes,” said Gema Za­marro, a Univer­sity of Arkansas ed­u­ca­tion pro­fes­sor who has stud­ied PISA re­sults. “It’s not that the PISA test is not use­ful. It’s that it may be even more use­ful than a test that fo­cuses only on knowl­edge.”

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