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US students lag behind in worldwide test scores

International assessment ranks Americans below par in key subject areas

POSTED: December 7, 2013 11:43 p.m.

Life as an American student is significantly different for French exchange student Arthur Schouteeten.

“It’s so different (in France) in that we don’t choose our own classes,” the 17-year-old said. “We work from 8 a.m. until 6 in the night, so we have a full day. ... We have a lot of homework, more than here.”

It’s that freedom, and the ability to choose in America, that Schouteeten prefers over his native country.

“It’s more relaxed,” he said. “The teachers in France are really ... they take distance when teaching a student. You don’t want to befriend (them). They just make their job to teach you. Sometimes they don’t even know your name.

“Here, I feel like the teachers care about us. They want to know how we feel, how we are. Sometimes they ask about our weekend, they ask about our family. We don’t have that in France.”

It’s the differences between educational systems that the Program for International Student Assessment measures. The international assessment tests 15-year-old students in science, math and reading and stacks them up against each other.

The tests have been given every three years in 65 different locations since 2000. The scores just released are from 2012, and show that American students are average in science and reading, while they continue to drop in math.

The results show that out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranks No. 26 in the world for math, No. 21 in science and No. 17 in reading. The program determines those estimated rankings not only based on the average score of students, but also by the percentage of students scoring both low and high scores.

Scores are broken into six levels; levels five and six are considered high performing, while anything level two or under is low.

In math, Shanghai was the highest performing locale, with 55 percent of participating students falling into levels five and six. The Chinese city was followed by Singapore, Taipei, Hong Kong and Korea. Only certain parts of China take the test, so it is broken into regions.

The United States only had 9 percent performing at those levels, along with Hungary, Israel and Norway. The overall average was 13 percent.

The U.S. also scored low in science with only 7 percent at levels five and six. Eight percent made those levels in reading proficiency.

According to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, those scores have not changed since the assessment was developed. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the release a “picture of educational stagnation.”

But Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said while there are lessons to be learned from other countries, these assessments aren’t the best way to compare and contrast students worldwide.

“The United States has a larger number of students per capita educated and tested,” she said. “Therefore, it clearly reflects the challenges of poverty and mobility. European nations are not easily compared to the U.S. as they have roughly the same number of students as many of our states.”

To add to that, it should be noted while Asian students scored top spots in each of the three assessments, China only releases scores from certain areas, so it’s not necessarily representative of the entire country.

“All of our children take the test,” said Carrie Woodcock, assistant principal at Hall’s World Language Academy. “But, that being said, I think there are always ways that we can improve. Especially as the world changes, I think (we) need to begin to change with it.”

Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield isn’t surprised by the results. His point is that ever since international assessments were established in the 1960s, Americans have always lagged behind some of their overseas counterparts.

“I think it’s important to remember that we have led the world for 150 years because we’ve been the world’s innovators and creators and inventors,” he said.

Schouteeten, along with Italian exchange student Giorgio Viano, said the reason American students don’t do so well may be because the land of opportunity offers too many options.

“In France, it’s (harder) to give up school,” Schouteeten said. “The school wants to keep you and teach you. They don’t really care about you personally, but they care about your grade. If you start to have bad grades, they are going to put more pressure on you.”

Viano, 16, used athletic teams as an example.

“In Italy, you can’t think to do five practices every week,” he said. “You can’t do it. You have no time to do it. So if you have to choose between sport and school, in Italy, most people choose school. I feel like here, it’s not like that.”

They also said college is a more attainable goal in Europe; tuition is less expensive and scholarships more readily available.

Schouteeten admits he does better academically when the teachers are more strict and the days are more focused on academics. But there’s the other side of the coin.

“I feel better here,” he said. “I’m not so stressed about high school, about grades. The teacher puts so much pressure on teenagers (in France) and we don’t feel really good during those times.”


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