In Defense of America's STEM Students' PISA Test Scores


Posted By: John Freeman 0 Comments
The results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released on December 3rd, 2013. The PISA ranks 15 year olds from around the world based on their scholastic achievement in math, science, and reading. As recent headlines have blasted, students from the United States did not have the best record, scoring 26th in math and 21st in science in 2012. These numbers seem to indicate that the United States still has a long way to go, even while more attention is paid to the shortfalls in STEM education and STEM readiness in high school students. However, a closer inspection shows us that the academic position of American students in the world is not quite as clear as it first seems.

There are some problems with the testing done on behalf of some other countries that may have artificially inflated their standings. China is actually listed as three separate tested bodies: Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Macau. Respectively these three scored 1st, 3rd, and 12th in math and 1st, 3rd, and 18th in science, despite all of them being heavily urban areas from the same country. Traditionally, urban students from economically advanced areas and backgrounds do better than their more rural counterparts. By only providing some of the available data, many have started to wonder if perhaps China is manipulating the PISA system to advance its own rankings. The rote learning and intense academic pressure that has become synonymous with Chinese education may in fact not be as useful in universal STEM education as many people would like to believe. Additionally, other high ranking countries such as Liechtenstein and Singapore may be more ideally suited to having uniform testing results due to their smaller overall populations.

Just because American students scored poorly on one round of international tests does not mean that the school district or school that a particular student attends is better or worse than the national average. Few reports actually mention that students from Connecticut, Massachusetts and Florida participated for the first time in the most recent round of PISA tests and received separate scores. This sort of testing ignores the gains that STEM education efforts have made in other states. For instance, business grants in California, Improving education funding in Illinois that include courses that reflect STEM pathways, and a pro-STEM governor in Virginia have all contributed to STEM education. In addition, parents need to realize that their child's success in science and math cannot be accurately compared to students half a world away. The differences in educational styles are vast and the current tests available simply do not provide an accurate view.

American students have never performed well on the PISA tests. Over the last 40 years, the USA has scored around the middle of the rankings or even a little bit lower. However, this has not stopped the United States from continuing to produce leaders in the fields of science, technology and math. Though the global economy is of course shifting, the United States still plays a dominant role in contributing to the development of these specialized fields.

So what should the PISA test mean for the United States? While inconsistencies and weaknesses exist in the current PISA system, that is no reason to discontinue the national program of encouraging STEM education. There has been a dedicated national effort over the last ten years to accelerate the opportunities for STEM education from elementary school through college, and these efforts need to be extended further as opposed to curtailed. A test is simply a number. It can be an important tool in driving the future, but it should not be used as the only measure of a successful education. Instead, those interested in the future of STEM should celebrate the creativity, innovative problem solving skills, critical thinking, and team-based cooperation that STEM encourages wherever it is pursued. These skills will be vital to tomorrow's economy, and a standardized test simply cannot measure them.

As a recent National Defense Magazine article pointed out, the shortage of engineers and other STEM workers that the United States will face in coming years is no myth. Now more than ever, the US needs to make sure that students are prepared and passionate about entering jobs in the STEM field. This cannot happen by overreacting to an embarrassing international ranking by cracking down on creativity and increasing the amount of testing required in public education. Instead, for true future success, the American education system will have to find creative ways to introduce students to the wonders and opportunities of the STEM field, and to inspire hard work. When these come together, today's students and tomorrow's workforce cannot help but be successful.

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