Scores from one of the world’s most important tests have been announced, and American students, as they have in the past, have earned a C.

Administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the PISA exam tested 510,000 15- and 16-year-olds in math, reading and science. Sixty-two countries along with the Chinese cities of Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao participated.

Among the 65 tested entities, the United States ranked 36th in math, 28th in science, and 24th in reading. Among the 34 OECD countries (basically, 34 of the world’s older, richer democracies), the United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science, and 17th in reading. Shanghai, whose population of 24 million is eight times that of Arkansas’, was number one in everything.

A few highlights:

• Money only matters to a point. According to the PISA report, the United States spends more per students ages 6-15 than all but four OECD countries but gets below average results. Its math average is a point below the Slovak Republic’s despite spending more than twice as much per student. South Korea spends a below average amount and yet ranks near the top.

• We’re struggling in different parts of the spectrum. We have less than our share of high-performing students in math. Meanwhile, only 5 percent of low-income American students really excel, which is less than the OECD average of 7 percent. This is a problem in a country that is supposed to be the home of the underdog. Compared to Americans, three times as many poor kids in the three Chinese cities and Vietnam do much better than their family income situations would predict.

• We have a problem not just with math but with the math that matters – solving problems as they pertain to real-world situations. American students do well at plugging numbers into a structured formula.

• The average performance of American students has not improved over time despite major education reforms.

The report says that the United States’ move to the Common Core State Standards in math and English/reading might help, but the Common Core is becoming quite controversial. Even though states voluntarily joined the movement, it represents de facto national education standards.

On the other hand, the current system, where states set their own standards, makes it hard to measure how American students are performing against each other, much less the world. In Arkansas, 77 percent of students are considered "proficient" in algebra. The PISA exam would indicate they’re not.

Please don’t tell yourself that "Unlike the rest of the world, the United States tries to educate all of its students." That persistent belief arises from a bygone era. Aside from China, these are countrywide scores. Most of the countries with whom the United States competes try to educate everybody.

But do look on the bright side. Massachusetts, a high-performing state, would rank sixth in reading if it were a country – ahead of Finland, which most agree has an excellent education system. Massachusetts would rank ninth in science, which is pretty good, and 17th in math, which is OK. So if Massachusetts can do it, maybe the rest of the United States can follow.

Finally, to borrow a phrase from the Emergency Broadcast System, "This is a test," and tests don’t necessarily measure anything accurately. Like that familiar announcement, this is not an actual emergency — yet.

Unfortunately, we won’t know when it is one. We do know this: If the United States is OK with the thought of being a C-rated country, that’s what it will become.


Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His email address is Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.