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In our opinion: International education benchmarks reflect poorly on U.S.

American children don't stack up well. U.S. math scores were below the international average, while science and reading scores were about average.
American children don't stack up well. U.S. math scores were below the international average, while science and reading scores were about average.
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Every three years, the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, conducts testing of math, science and reading abilities among 15-year-old students worldwide. The latest results were released last week, and it wasn’t good news for the United States.

American children don’t stack up well. U.S. math scores were below the international average, while science and reading scores were about average. Long-term trends were more troubling. U.S. math scores have declined steadily since 2009, and science and reading scores have remained flat.

Test results should be considered within the parameters of what they purport to measure. Against that standard, PISA is important. It measures how well students can apply core subjects to solving problems. As the report itself puts it, the tests assess “the extent to which 15-year-old students, near the end of their compulsory education, have acquired key knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies.”

This is done because “modern economies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know.” That sounds logical and correct.

For Utah, the results are instructive. Utah educators and politicians too often measure the state’s public education system by how it compares to other states. By that measure, results range from average to good. A recent report by the College Board, for instance, found Utah leads the nation in the percentage of students passing Advanced Placement exams.

But those results measure the state only against the mediocre performance of the United States, which finished 25th overall in the PISA test. Utah ought to set its sights on developing one of the best school systems in the world — one that competes with Singapore, Japan and Estonia. Its graduates will, after all, compete in a global marketplace against students from those nations.

To that end, the test is useful in demonstrating what works and what doesn’t. Significantly, its results can’t be correlated with money spent per pupil. Certainly, it does demonstrate that resources directed toward disadvantaged students can pay off, but money alone isn’t a determiner.

Neither is homework. Schools requiring students to spend time learning after school tended to have students who performed worse in science.

Also, family background does not necessarily have to be an indicator of achievement. While disadvantaged students tended to perform below their more advantaged peers, in some countries, such as Estonia, Denmark and Canada, they performed well.

What does work is teacher excellence. The report said “in almost all education systems, students score higher in science when they reported that their science teachers ‘explain scientific ideas.’ ‘discuss their questions’ or ‘demonstrate an idea’ more frequently.’”

Also, teachers who could adapt lessons to the specific knowledge and abilities of their students saw better results. These are things that can be studied and adapted to teacher development.

Finally, the test demonstrates the value of accountability and autonomy, and of letting principals decide what is taught. Students scored higher in science “in countries where achievement data are tracked over time or posted publicly, or when principals show higher levels of educational leadership.”

Too often, arguments over how to improve public education revolve around simplistic solutions or political slogans. Not all successes abroad translate into lessons that apply to Utah. But state leaders would do well to look at places where excellence abounds and find the lessons that do apply.