Interpreting PISA Results: ‘Keep the Faith’ in Higher Standards


PISA results released this week reignited debate (which, for all intents and purposes, has been resolved) over states’ commitment to implementing rigorous, comparable education standards – even though most experts, and even many of the same critics, acknowledge it is a mistake to attribute blame or credit to any particular policy.

The scores “confirm a downward trend” and indicate higher standards “are failing high schoolers in math,” argues Alice Lloyd in the Weekly Standard. “We’re now, as a nation, in the bottom half of participating regions and countries when it comes to applying our math skills to practical problems, known as ‘mathematical literacy.’”

The results “demonstrate the ongoing failure of D.C.-driven education reform efforts,” Jamie Gass of the Pioneer Institute tells Breitbart News. The state-led effort to raise academic expectations has “yielded little or nothing for America’s schoolchildren in terms of academic improvement on both national and international testing.”

But, as we noted earlier this week, policymakers should reject the calls of those who interpret the results of PISA and similar exams as evidence that states should retreat from rigorous, comparable education standards. Education policies take time to take root, which means the latest international exams likely don’t reflect the full impact higher standards are having.

PISA, for example, is taken by 15-year-old students. They have spent only a small part of their academic careers learning to meet higher standards. As a result, it’s unlikely their scores are fully reflective of the impact more rigorous learning goals are having.

Third-graders, on the other hand, have spent most of their classroom career achieving to higher standards. This group of students made some of the biggest academic gains on state assessments aligned to more challenging standards, which suggests the more exposure students have to higher expectations the bigger the impact on performance.

The underlying data from PISA indicates U.S. schools are on the right course, Amanda Ripley, a senior fellow at the Emerson Collective wrote in the New York Times earlier this week. “A majority of states recently adopted more consistent and challenging learning goals,” and she urges state leaders to “keep the faith” that higher standards will improve achievement.

As states implement higher education standards, math instruction has shifted to put an increased focus on helping students build the foundational skills to succeed in high level content. Alongside traditional problem-solving techniques, students are learning to apply multiple methods and critical thinking skills, helping to develop fluency in mathematics – which is exactly what tests like PISA measure.

This year, a majority of states made significant improvements in student proficiency in math and reading on assessments aligned to higher standards. Like PISA and similar tests, it is impossible to identify any single factor responsible for those gains. But, they are a pretty good indication that higher standards are beginning to pay off, and they show year-over-year growth in student achievement, which is important.

New Mexico’s Secretary of Education, Hanna Skandera, explains that the improvements students are making should encourage policymakers to keep expectations high as they implement the Every Student Succeeds Act: “These findings send a clear message that it’s a mistake to retreat from high standards or go back to low-quality tests.”