Should International Education Comparisons Dictate our Future?

The Programme for International Student Assessment, or “PISA,” is an international study that made its first run in 2000. The purpose of the test is to compare results of 15 year old students around the world and to rank each country by how successful the students score. The test is distributed and analyzed every three years, with the most recent one having taken place in 2010.

Each time that PISA has been distributed and compared, the United States has scored significantly lower than China, Japan, Singapore, New Zealand, and Finland, among others. In fact, the US has been so unsatisfied with its student’s test scores that professionals are continuously being sent to countries that scored higher, in an effort to learn from their education systems. The US has sent so many people to Finland to analyze their schools and teaching methods that the Finns have begun charging fees for the opportunity.

The United States, among other countries that are not ranked highest in education, consider the test scores to be vital indicators of what the future of their country will be like. Essentially, they are worried that without top scoring students, the power that they hold today will not be present down the road. The United States has even compared the education comparisons to the Sputnik Space Race. The country claims to be doing all it can to improve the education system and climb up to the highest ranks.

There are multiple problems with the comparison scenario, though. First, PISA results are not analyzed to the full extent that they should be. The scores are compared by countries and show which ones have the top test results. In the most recent comparison, students in various Asian countries scored higher than those in the US. Because of that, the United States is considered to be below those countries by education system standards. However, the test results do not take into account the fact that the US actually has an extremely higher number of top achievers than any of those Asian countries. So while those countries might have a group of 100 teenagers who had perfect scores, the US would then have a group of 1,000 teenagers with slightly lower than perfect scores. Moreover, the number of immigrants in the US outweighs the amount in Japan and Finland, for instance. Due to this, while many test takers might have scored in the top percentile in their home country, they may take up the lower scores in the US because of the language barrier.

Additionally, PISA comparisons do not take into account the societal and cultural differences of each country. In the United States, much emphasis is put on extracurricular activities like band, athletics, or theater. In Singapore, on the other hand, some schools keep their students until 11pm each day to ensure that parents cannot send their children to night school; doing this would put those who cannot afford night school at a disadvantage. It is hard to imagine a scenario like that happening in the US. Our cultures are different, and so are our values. Neither one is right or wrong, but the fact remains that our priorities do not align. Government officials should consider these facts before envisioning a downward spiral of future failures.

The absolute lowest PISA test scores come from students who reside in the most rural areas of any country. Instead of focusing on implementing more standardized testing or lengthening school hours, I believe that each country should focus on spending more time improving their rural schools. There is no reason for the United States to spend money on additional testing when it could instead be put specifically toward raising rural area education standards. The same goes to the countries that are ranked above the US. If China, for instance, focused more time and energy on improving education standards in their rural areas, they would vastly improve as a nation. Instead of being able to claim that Shanghai students outshine ones in the UK, they could show improved results for their rural areas as well and in turn as a nation.

Overall, I do not think that PISA test results should have such an impact on any education system. Instead of comparing any nation to another, I believe that we should each focus on ourselves. Why not compare test results between urban areas and rural areas in the United States? Would that not make more sense? Our cultures, values, societies, and youth all vary from country to country. I think that the smartest thing to do would be to improve national standards before moving into the international arena. What do you think?


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