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US students halt academic 'free-fall,' but still lag in global testing

Korean and Finnish students scored highest in the latest round of PISA tests aimed at assessing reading, math, and science literacy.

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Still, there was some good news on the mathematics front, where Kerachsky notes that no countries moved ahead of the US since 2006, and the US caught up with nine countries that previously had higher average scores.

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The best news for American students came in science, where they raised their score from 489 in 2006 to 502 in 2009 – on par with the average OECD score. The US caught up with six countries, and moved ahead of six other countries, though it still scored below 12 of them.

In reading – a major focus of this PISA – the US had no change in its showing from previous years. It was on par with the OECD average, and just six countries – Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia – had average scores that were measurably higher.

Some experts caution that comparing countries with vastly different populations is frought with complexities, and that the rankings aren’t as straightforward as they might seem. In the US, for instance, about 20 percent of students are non-native English speakers, notes Clifford Adelman, a senior associate with the Institute for Higher Education Policy. In Korea, virtually all students are native speakers of Korean, the language in which they take the test.

“We’ve got a very motley crew here as a nation of of immigrants,” says Mr. Adelman. “That’s not an excuse, but we ought to be comparing apples to apples.”

Still, PISA has in recent years been seen as a wake-up call to Americans who once prided themselves on their education system, but have seen their students start to fall behind peers in other countries.

In a speech in North Carolina Monday, President Barack Obama reminded Americans how the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik in the 1950s prompted increased investment in math and science education, and called this a new "Sputnik moment." "America is in danger of falling behind," he said. Obama has also set a goal for the US to have the highest proportion of students graduating from college by 2020.

“The good news is that the free-fall seems to have stopped – and it was a free-fall for a while,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and the former governor of West Virginia. He adds that he’s encouraged by the fact that 30 percent of US students who are low-income performed in the top quartile. “That says to me … that the child’s income level is not determinative of how well they can do.”

Still, he adds, “we’re still treading water. We’re in a kayak and some other nations have been in a speedboat.”

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