PISA Shows U.S. Still Lagging, but on Track to Improve with Higher Standards

Today, a very sobering report was released comparing high school students around the world on academic achievement and progress. The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) report provides a picture of how U.S. education compares to other countries. The 5th release of this tri-annual report finds that many countries are showing significant progress – especially in mathematics – while American student achievement remains stagnant.

“Only 2% of U.S. high school students tested reached the highest level of math proficiency,” said Angel Gurria, Secretary General for the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), who presented a summary of the PISA report’s findings along with U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. “There is no time for complacency … Reforms in education and skills development are key to future growth and employment.”

Sixty-two countries participated in the testing of 15-year-old students for this study. The highest performer was Shanghai, China, which has ranked #1 since the 2009 report. The U.S. dropped from 24th in 2009 to 29th, surpassed by countries like Germany, Vietnam and and Portugal.

Students were included in the Dec. 3rd discussion of the 2012 PISA report, hosted by OECD and broadcast live online. The panel included high school students currently attending a U.S. school, many of whom moved here from other countries. The students provided a real, personal look into the American system and how it differs – both in good and bad ways – to other countries in their experience.

One student, originally from Brazil, gave what the moderator described as a “devastating analysis” of U.S. schools, stating that American students “don’t seem to know how to think” for themselves. The moderator, Amanda Ripley, drew connections from this viewpoint to what could be the heavy focus of U.S. schools on standardized tests under the No Child Left Behind initiative, where rote memorization often eclipsed opportunities for deeper learning. Ripley is the author of The Smartest Kids in the World.

Another student who moved from the U.S. to Korea in the 6th grade, and then returned to the U.S. in high school, gave another comparison. She explained that the academic work was a lot easier in the U.S., and the school environment as a whole is much more “relaxed.” In Korea, she attended school all day – from 8:00am to 10:00pm – and there were no sports or extracurricular activities. The main focus was on high-level academics.

“If the U.S. could raise its academic standards higher like Korea, and Korea could provide a more holistic student experience like the U.S. (with shorter days), that would be my ideal high school,” said the senior from a New Jersey high school.

The report findings and the student testimonies support the promising changes happening in the U.S., which can significantly shift its progress and trajectory toward higher student performance:

    • The implementation of Common Core State Standards in most U.S. states raises the learning benchmarks and expectations for student academic achievement, more competitively with International standards.


    • The expansion of pre-k for more U.S. students will help close the achievement gap and prepare all students for higher learning from a level starting point.


    • High-quality teachers from the best post-secondary preparation programs are essential for the best possible implementation of higher standards and deeper student learning.


  • High-quality assessments aligned with high standards will provide a clearer measurement of student progress – not just to pass a test, but to be better prepared to succeed in college and the work force.

These four indicators are shared among the higher-performing education systems. In fact, Ripley stated during the student panel discussion that all of the high-performing countries had something very similar to Common Core State Standards, which are being implemented in 45 U.S. states.

Click here to download the OECD report, “2012 PISA Results in Focus”

Click here to download the 2012 Key Findings for the United States

Click here to explore all PISA data and findings on the OECD website