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PISA Scores, Broken Down by Poverty Rate, Indicate U.S. is Failing to Educate Low-Income Children

The Obama administration called the release of the 2009 PISA (the Program for International Student Assessment) results “a Sputnik moment,” lamenting the middling scores, compared to students in other countries in the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), for U.S. students in reading, math, and science. However, some education leaders and experts have offered a more nuanced view, one that acknowledges problems raised by the scores but also reveals an astonishing underlying truth: the United States does not have a broad-based educational crisis; rather, it is failing to educate at high levels only one significant part of its student population – its low-income children.

An analysis of the latest PISA scores by Gerald N. Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), indicates that nonpoor U.S. children do well in international comparisons; the problem is that the United States has by far the highest rate of child poverty of any of the advanced industrial countries, and it is these children who perform very poorly on the international tests. For example, U.S. students in schools with less than 10% poverty rank number one in the world, while students in schools with greater than 50% poverty score significantly below average.

Free and Reduced Meal Rate

PISA Score

U.S. schools with < 10%

551

U.S. schools with 10-24.9%

527

U.S. schools with 25-49.9%

502

U.S. schools with 49.9-74.9%

471

U.S. schools with >75%

446

U.S. average

500

OECD Average

493

For a more accurate assessment of the performance of U.S. students, Tirozzi aligns the scores of American schools with those of other countries with comparable poverty rates. He shows the ranking of schools in the United States with less than a 10% poverty rate compared with ten countries with similar poverty numbers:

Country

Poverty Rate

PISA Score

United States

<10%

551

Finland

3.4%

536

Netherlands

9.0%

508

Belgium

6.7%

506

Norway

3.6%

503

Switzerland

6.8%

501

France

7.3%

496

Denmark

2.4%

495

Czech Republic

7.2%

478

He then matches schools with a poverty rate of 10-24.9% with ten comparable nations. 

Country

Poverty Rate

PISA Score

United States

10%-24.9%

527

Canada

13.6%

524

New Zealand

16.3%

521

Japan

14.3%

520

Australia

11.6%

515

Poland

14.5%

500

Germany

10.9%

497

Ireland

15.7%

496

Hungary

13.1%

494

United Kingdom

16.2%

494

Portugal

15.6%

489

Italy

15.7%

486

Greece

12.4%

483

Austria

13.3%

471

No other country tested had a poverty rate approaching 25%. However, compared with other countries, the U.S. average of 502 for schools with poverty rates between 25-49.9% is still in the upper half of the scores.

U.S. % Poverty

Other Countries

PISA Score

U.S. (<10%)

 

551

 

Korea

539

 

Finland

536

U.S. (10-24.9%)

 

527

 

Canada

524

 

New Zealand

521

 

Japan

520

 

Australia

515

 

Netherlands

508

 

Belgium

506

 

Norway

503

U.S. (25-49.9%)

 

502

 

Estonia

501

 

Switzerland

501

 

Poland

500

 

Iceland

500

U.S. (Average)

 

500

 

Sweden

497

 

Germany

497

 

Ireland

496

 

France

496

 

Denmark

495

 

United Kingdom

494

 

Hungary

494

 

Portugal

489

 

Italy

486

 

Slovenia

483

 

Greece

483

 

Spain

481

 

Czech Republic

478

 

Slovak Republic

477

 

Israel

474

 

Luxembourg

472

U.S. (50-74.9%)

 

471

 

Austria

471

 

Turkey

464

 

Chile

449

U.S. (over 75%)

 

446

 

Mexico

425

 

 

 

Mel Riddile (Associate Director at NASSP), reporting on Tirozzi’s figures, concludes that “the real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement. Our lowest achieving schools are the most under-resourced schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results.”