Socioeconomic status big factor in low scores for US on global exam

Increased inequality, segregation by class and ethnicity contribute to low test scores, according to a new report

Students at the Bedford Academy High School studying during their 10th and 11th grade global studies class on Tuesday. U.S. students scored mid-range on an international exam designed to gauge the strength of different countries education systems.
Bebeto Matthews/AP

Socioeconomic status played a significant role in the United States' low test scores on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), according to a report released Tuesday that analyzed the results of the exam.

The test, which is administered every three years by the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), is an international survey that attempts to evaluate the strength of the world's education systems by testing the reading, math and science skills of 15-year-olds. This year's assessment included students from 65 different countries and economies.

In math, the U.S. came in 26th among the 34 OECD countries, with scores on par with Hungary, Norway, Portugal, the Russian Federation, the Slovak Republic, Spain and Sweden. In reading, the U.S. came in 17th, on the same level as Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Hungary and other nations.

The report said that a 15 percent variation in student performance can be "explained by students' socioeconomic background," which is higher than the 10 percent variation in some of the top-performing countries in this year's assessment, like Finland, Hong Kong-China, Japan and Norway.

Each of those nations had "higher or comparable math, reading and science scores," according to the report. "In other words, in the United States, two students from different socioeconomic backgrounds vary much more in their learning outcomes than is normally the case in these other countries."

Low performance among America's disadvantaged youth is not a new phenomenon, but the report also pointed out that other countries with similar rates of poverty don't have such large educational disparities.

"What the report does say, or at least implies, is that we can't attribute the U.S.'s overall middle of the pack performance to the fact that we have a lot of students in poverty because there are plenty of other countries that have lots of students in poverty and some of them are doing better than us," Aaron Pallas, a sociology and education professor, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Pallas also told Diverse Issues that part of the problem could stem from the "extraordinary residential segregation" by class and ethnicity in the U.S., which the report also noted leaves students from lower socioeconomic status' to attend lower performing schools.

"[S]ocio-economic disadvantage translates more directly into poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries," the report said. Despite being at a significant disadvantage, students with lower socioeconomic statuses "have average or better achievement in mathematics," according to the report, supporting Pallas' comments that the U.S.'s low score cannot be blamed solely on the nation's poor students.

Some experts say the test scores on the PISA are not something to focus on — the scores have remained virtually unchanged since 2003 — because on other international exams the U.S. actually fares better.

"On the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), we do a lot better than on this PISA," Martin Carnoy, an education professor at Stanford University, told Al Jazeera. "In fact, in math, which is not our strong suit, we do very well...our math scores on every test except the PISA are up."

Carnoy said the bigger issue isn't the test scores, but the nation's poverty rate.

"We have a lot of kids in poverty, and it's really hurting us in many ways," he said. According to UNICEF,  just over a quarter (25.1 percent) of children in the U.S. live in relative poverty. "No other developed society has this. How a rich country can have this high level of poverty and do nothing about it is amazing. Finland has a 4 percentage level of poverty, and they do much better than us on the PISA because they have very few kids in poverty," Carnoy added.

Carnoy argued that if the U.S. really wanted to do better on international tests like the PISA, it would focus more on stamping out poverty among the nation's children, which would help close the disparity.

"Inequality has increased enormously in the last 30 years, tremendously."

"A lot of the people who are talking about the importance of raising test scores are putting a lot of onus on the schools when a lot of these other problems are easier to solve," he said.

"It's easy. Lots of countries do it, why don't we do it?"

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that UNESCO rated the U.S. child poverty level at 24 percent, it should have read UNICEF, which ranks it at 25.1 percent.

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