The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a test of math, science, and reading administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. In 2012, half a million 15-year-olds around the world sat for the test, including about 6,000 Americans.
In 2012, America's 10th graders scored about the same as or worse than they did in 2009, while top-scoring countries like Shanghai, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong, and even less likely countries like Ireland and Poland, all posted improvements. Vietnam, giving the test for the first time, beat international averages in math and science. The United States, meanwhile, is well below the international average in math, below it in science, and exactly at the average in reading.
There are no stakes attached to the test, and the sampling is tiny given there are 55 million school kids in the United States. Still, the results, released today, are making national headlines, reflecting America's burning anxiety about the strength of our education system and our future economic competitiveness.
Fairly or not, the PISA tests tend to be treated as an international referendum on education methods. The tests include both multiple-choice and long-answer items and are designed to get students to apply concepts to the real world, which American students were especially bad at in math. Finland—the tiny Nordic country that has become a darling of progressive education reformers, with its focus on free play, the arts, treating teachers as highly paid professionals, and near-complete absence of standardized tests—has slipped significantly from its formerly high perch in this year's rankings. Meanwhile, South Korea, the prototypical Asian pressure-cooker "cram school" system, continues to improve its results. What this means for U.S. schools, which spend far more money than the average, test students more often than most, and continue to get mediocre results, remains to be seen.