USA K-12 achievement stalled on international exams

PISA, the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment, measures 15-year-olds’ ability to use their reading, mathematics and science knowledge and skills to meet real-life challenges.

The performance of American 15-year-olds in reading and math has remained stagnant for the past two decades according to results released this past week from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Meanwhile, the achievement gap in reading between high- and low-performing students has grown wider.

The less-than-stellar results from the exam, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), mirror recently released scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which I described in an earlier post as an Agincourt-level disaster.

Chile is the country most closely resembling the math and reading scores of American black students; Turkey most closely matches the combined achievement of American Hispanic students. Yet the United States spends more than twice as much per pupil as either Chile or Turkey.

Even the scores for American white students, while internationally competitive, appear less than impressive.

Estonia scores a bit higher while spending half as much per pupil as the United States. Moreover, scholars have made us aware that higher-income American families spend lavishly on enrichment options for their K-12 students (tutoring, club sports, etc.), and that this spending has increased steadily over time.

How many Estonian families do you reckon spend $8,872 per child per year on enrichment spending? Since the average American income is more than $26,000 per person higher than that in Estonia after adjusting for purchasing power, I’m going to walk out on a limb and dare a guess: Not many.

And, while enrichment spending apparently has little to do with improvement among low-income students (the trend in such spending is flat since the early 1980s), that isn’t the case among advantaged students. Richer in schools twice as well funded but underperforming is not a great place for America’s highest-performing subgroup to find itself vis-à-vis Estonia.

Even without these latest PISA results, but reinforced in light of them, it’s clear that without the benefit of lavish enrichment spending and other related advantages, the high levels of spending in American schools appears broadly ineffectual for students of color.


  1. It has long been known that there is no direct correlation between spending on state schools and test scores; this is just more evidence supporting that general truth. Its reality does need to be reminded to clueless Democratic candidates whose only significant K-12 policy proposal is increasing spending on traditional district schools. Nonetheless, I’m surprised about the elision of the performance of the tens of millions of teens of Chinese ancestry from the above chart. Why were their children who took the test in Beijing, Hong Kong, Jiangsu, Macau, Shanghai, Singapore, the United States, and Zhejiang removed from your calculations?

  2. BWS-

    Thanks for the comment. The results from China are not national, so may be a bit like having the American government pick out Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire to represent the United States. In addition, analysts have made what I regard as a persuasive case that the scores and the gains seen in these provincial results seem implausibly favorable. Given that these scores are not national and face questions regarding their validity, I chose not to include them.

    • Thanks for the reply, Matt. Nonetheless, I don’t see Singapore, Macau, or Hong Kong, the top scorers, on this chart, nor do I see Asian-Americans, the ethnic group often scoring at the top in the United States. Were these groups considered too small to mention? Hong Kong and Singapore are both more populous than Estonia, which is being given prominence, in spite of its lack of a university ranked in the top 300 in the world.

      I think those of Asian descent especially germane to your column because their cultural choice of how to spend their children’s time, energy, and money are strongly related to both of the charts above.