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The 10th Brown Center Report (Brookings Institution), which analyzed PISA and other common standardized test scores, debunked two common myths: that the U.S. once led the world in math and science education scores and that it has been declining ever since. In reality, the U.S. has never led the world on international achievement tests, according to the report. The report also found that some of the states that won federal Race to the Top (RttT) grants actually underperformed states that did not receive the grants on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), thus suggesting that the “reforms” mandated by the Obama Administration are not improving educational outcomes.
According to Brookings scholar Tom Loveless, U.S. science and math scores have been mediocre compared to other wealthy nations since at least 1964 and, contrary to the claims of Ed Deformers and accountability maniacs, they have not been getting any worse. America’s schools are NOT in a state of crisis or deterioration. Indeed, evidence suggests that they have been improving (see Jay Mathews’s Class Struggle). In 1964, we scored near the very bottom, compared with 2010, when we scored near the middle in science and literacy.
Despite the fact that we’ve never been number one (or even close to it) in K-12 math and science scores, the U.S. has continued to dominate the world economically over the past 50 years, suggesting that pundits and critics have been completely wrong about the importance of this metric to our international competitiveness. Furthermore, despite our relatively weak K-12 math and science scores, we continue to pump out some of the most effective scientists and mathematicians in the world, including more Nobel laureates than any other country.
One might conclude from this that our K-12 science and math education has been sufficient for preparing students for the rigors of university level science and math. This would probably be an incorrect assumption. What is probably happening is that some U.S. students are excelling at science and math (primarily the same middle class and affluent students who tend to excel at school, in general) and these students are also succeeding in college, while large numbers of lower income students are struggling across the board, including in math and science.
The improvements in PISA scores, as well as the increasing numbers of lower income and minority students who are taking and passing SAT and AP exams, probably do reflect improvements in teaching, as well as changing attitudes and policies about promoting college and higher level course work to low income and minority students. Yet our inability to score at the top of international tests is not due to the quality of the schools and teachers, which have been improving, but to socioeconomic conditions, which have actually been declining for large numbers of Americans. When disaggregated by class, our middle class students do as well as those from almost any other country. At the same time, the countries with the highest PISA scores tend to have far less childhood poverty and income gaps than we do.
Thus, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, if we really want to see PISA scores go up, along with graduation rates, science literacy, and any other academic indicator, we need to close the wealth gap, end poverty and start investing in education a level comparable to Finland.
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