International Test Results with a Grain of Salt: It Requires Time for Education Policy to Take Root


We noted yesterday that coverage of the latest PISA results, which were released this week, have drawn attention to the state of math education in the United States. U.S. performance slipped in mathematics and America now ranks 31st among the 35 OECD countries that participate in PISA.

However, the scores should not be interpreted as a reason for policymakers to change course on their commitment to raising academic expectations. Still, some education commentators have made that implication.

Even though “it is impossible to definitively place blame or credit” for declines in U.S. students performance in math on PISA and TIMSS exams, Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute suggests that the results undermine improvements states are making through more rigorous standards.

“It’s quite possible scores in those states have risen largely because those states have adjusted to [new standards], not because students are better educated,” McCluskey argues in the Washington Examiner. “The target may have moved to the left, or even down, but scores will lag until sights are adjusted.”

However, student performance on assessments like PISA and TIMSS generally lags behind implementation of education policy. That’s because it takes time for teachers to adjust instruction, for students to acclimate to new expectations, and for changes to learning to occur.

PISA, for example, is taken by 15-year-old students. These students have spent only a fraction of their educational careers learning to meet higher standards, so it’s not likely the full impact of more rigorous academic expectations are fully reflected in their scores.

It is important to note that this year third-grade students, who by contrast have spent the most or all of their classroom time learning to meet higher standards, made some of the biggest proficiency gains on state assessments aligned to higher standards – indicating more challenging learning goals are having a positive impact on student performance.

What’s responsible for the United States’ performance in mathematics? “The shortest answer is: many things,” explains President and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, Marc Tucker. Specifically, Tucker says, teacher recruitment strategies, teacher specialization and performance are “worth thinking hard about.”

Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective, writes in the New York Times that the underlying data from the PISA exam actually suggest American schools are on the right track. “A majority of states recently adopted more consistent and challenging learning goals,” and leaders should “keep the faith” higher standards will improve achievement.

Ripley quotes Andreas Schleicher, who oversees PISA for the OECD, who explains he is confident higher standards will have “a long-term impact.” Schleicher notes, “Patience may be the biggest challenge.”

This year a majority of states made significant improvements in student proficiency in math and reading. Although there are many factors that affect those results, and it is too soon to identify a trend, those results suggest higher standards are working.

As Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s Secretary of Education, explained recently: “These findings send a clear message that it’s a mistake to retreat from high standards or go back to low-quality tests.”