A new report, sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, explores the “educational shortcomings” of US pupils compared to their international counterparts. In particular, the authors wanted to know whether the picture is skewed by poor performance among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They conclude that it is not just disadvantaged children who are lagging behind; it's advantaged children as well.
The analysis used state-by-state data from the 2011 eighth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, as well as international data from PISA 2012. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is a survey conducted every three years by the OECD. It aims to compare the performance of schools and education systems worldwide by assessing 15/16 year olds in three main subjects – mathematics, science, and reading – with a special focus on one subject per survey. PISA 2012 focused on mathematics.
The authors found that, when viewed from a global perspective, US schools seem to do as badly teaching those from advantaged families as they do teaching pupils from disadvantaged families. Overall, the US proficiency rate in maths (35%) places the country 27th among the 34 OECD countries that participated in PISA. The ranking was actually slightly lower for pupils from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (20th). It is important to note that there are significant variations across states.
Although the focus of the report is on maths, the authors show similar results for proficiency in science and literacy. They conclude that the US has two achievement gaps to be bridged – the well-known gap between its advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, but also the distance between itself and its peers abroad. This research suggests that the latter is not a socioeconomic issue.