Education

Test Scores Show US Students Falling Behind, Despite Education Reform

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American students did not show any improvement in the last round of international reading and math testing. In fact, math and reading performance have both been stagnant since 2000, despite a range of education reform efforts. These efforts were specifically aimed at pulling the U.S. up to international standards and at reaching the lowest performing students.

The international comparison is based on the results of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam. In the last testing year, 2018, a demographically representative sample of 4,800 students from across the U.S. took the test, along with 600,000 other public- and private-school educated 15-year-olds in 79 different education systems around the world.

According to the test results, the achievement gap is also widening in the U.S. between high performers and low performers. About a fifth of the American 15-year-olds who took the test appeared to not have even mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which runs the PISA exam. The news was not all bad, though: For example, achievement gaps between native-born and immigrant students were smaller for the U.S. than in peer countries.

The PISA test results follow the recent disappointing unveiling of the Nation’s Report Card, which is based on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test given to 4th and 8th graders. “Over the past decade, there has been no progress in either mathematics or reading performance, and the lowest-performing students are doing worse,” stated Peggy Carr of the National Center for Education Statistics, which administers the NAEP exam. According to the test, only 35 percent of 4th graders and 34 percent of 8th graders are considered proficient readers.

Because each state implements federal education guidelines differently, it can be difficult to pinpoint what is behind the country’s overall failure to improve in performance. But some individual states did see improvement on the latest NAEP results. In math, nine states improved in 4th grade results and three states saw improvement in 8th grade results. In reading, however, only Mississippi showed improvement in 4th grade and only Washington, D.C. improved in 8th grade.

To get to the root of the problem, a collective of 12 key education groups is calling on U.S. schools to commit to evidence-based reading instruction methods. Cognitive research shows that phonics instruction improves early reading comprehension skills, for example, but many schools do not currently include phonics in the curriculum. Furthermore, several early reading programs for grades K-2 were recently evaluated and did not meet standards for supporting basic foundational reading skills. The collective points to Mississippi in particular as an example of “what’s possible when these strategies are implemented patiently and effectively” — the state has seen improvement in reading because of its focus on training teachers to implement evidence-based practices


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Joanna Eng is a freelance writer and editor, Lambda Literary Fellow, and co-founder of Dandelions, a parenting and social justice newsletter. She lives with her wife and child in the New York City area, where she is constantly seeking out slivers of nature. You can find her on Twitter @joannamengland.