Global grade: How do U.S. students compare?
How do U.S. students compare to students in other countries? It's not as bad as some say, but there is room for improvement.
The major international tests
PISA The Programme for International Student Assessment is given every three years to 15-year-olds worldwide. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group funded by 30 countries, coordinates the test. The first PISA test was in 2000 and every test specializes in one particular subject, but also includes other subject areas. In 2006 the subject receiving special focus was science. In 2009 reading will be the special focus.
TIMSS The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study is an assessment given to fourth- and eighth-grade students around the world. The first TIMSS was in 1995, and the test is administered every four years. In 2007 approximately 60 countries participated.
PIRLS The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study assesses reading achievement in fourth-graders from 50 different countries. PIRLS is conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), the same organization that gives TIMSS. The PIRLS given in 2001 was the first in a projected cycle of testing that will occur every five years.
According to Professor Erling E. Boe, of the University of Pennsylvania, "These rankings are reasonably consistent across surveys within grade levels for the same subject, though the rankings at grade 4 are sometimes quite different than those at grade 9 for the same subject. Also, the relative rankings by subject vary, such as between reading at grade 9 and civics at grade 9. Furthermore, the sample of nations participating in surveys varies greatly by survey and grade level."
By Marian Wilde
The United States may be a superpower but in education we lag behind. In a recent comparison of academic performance in 57 countries, students in Finland came out on top overall. Finnish 15-year-olds did the best in science and came in second in math. Other top-performing countries were: Hong Kong, Canada, Taiwan, Estonia, Japan and Korea.
How did the U.S. do?
Students in the United States performed near the middle of the pack. On average 16 other industrialized countries scored above the United States in science, and 23 scored above us in math. The reading scores for the United States had to be tossed due to a printing error.
Experts noted that the United States' scores remained about the same in math between 2003 and 2006, the two most recent years the test — the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) — was given. Meanwhile, many other nations, Estonia and Poland being two, improved their scores and moved past the U.S.
Researchers also made note of the fact that while the United States has one of the biggest gaps between high- and low-performing students in an industrialized nation, Finland has one of the smallest. Students in Finland perform remarkably well, regardless of the school they attend.
What makes Finland so hot?
Finland's stellar performance has drawn the attention of education and government officials around the world. These experts have uncovered many attributes of the Finnish educational system that are distinctive and contribute to the success of Finnish students. Some of these features are:
- The Finnish school system uses the same curriculum for all students (which may be one reason why Finnish scores varied so little from school to school).
- Students have light homework loads.
- Finnish schools do not have classes for gifted students.
- Finland uses very little standardized testing.
- Children do not start school until age 7.
- Finland has a comprehensive preschool program that emphasizes "self-reflection" and socializing, not academics.
- Grades are not given until high school, and even then, class rankings are not compiled.
- Teachers must have master's degrees.
- Becoming a teacher in Finland is highly competitive. Just 10% of Finnish college graduates are accepted into the teacher training program; as a result, teaching is a high-status profession. (Teacher salaries are similar to teacher salaries in the U.S., however.)
- Students are separated into academic and vocational tracks during the last three years of high school. About 50% go into each track.
- Diagnostic testing of students is used early and frequently. If a student is in need of extra help, intensive intervention is provided.
- Groups of teachers visit each others' classes to observe their colleagues at work. Teachers also get one afternoon per week for professional development.
- School funding is higher for the middle school years, the years when children are most in danger of dropping out.
- College is free in Finland.
Says Professor Jouni Välijärvi of the Institute for Educational Research at the University of Jyväskylä, and Project Manager of PISA for Finland, "In light of the PISA data, Finnish schools manage to activate learning among the whole age cohort more effectively than any other country. Students are not sorted into different groups or schools but different types of learners are learning together. In this kind of setting high achieving students seem to serve as positive models for their less advanced classmates. The pedagogy differs from that applied in systems characterized by tracking and streaming. Efforts are made to provide instruction to cater to the needs of different learners in terms of their skills and interests."
Preschool education — a relatively new addition to the Finnish toolkit — has been part of their educational system for the past 10 years. According to Välijärvi, "Preschools are nonacademic in the sense that no clear academic targets are set. Socialization into school culture and learning to work together with children is the central role. Preschool is not compulsory in Finland, but 96-97% of the children go to it."