Another Slice of PISA: Socioeconomic factors weigh heavily on US students’ test scores

I wrote about the OECD’s annual standardized test earlier this week, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), and today I am going to write about it again. Repetition is the key to these standardized tests, you know. In this particular post, I’d like to take a look at a few of the more subtle details from the report released by the OECD together with the results.

PISA, OECD, socioeconomic status, education

The OECD’s PISA test shows that socioeconomic factors strongly influence educational outcomes.

The first of those details is a big one because it relates to money.  According to the OECD’s report, socioeconomic differences account for a 15% variance in the testing outcomes in the US, compared to less than 10% in Finland, Norway, Japan, and Hong Kong. In other words, two students from different socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to perform differently on the PISA in the US than in most other OECD countries. And it is not the student on the lower end of the financial spectrum that performs best.

Also, the OECD has a special classification for super rad students that are among the lowest 25% socio-economically but still perform in the top 5% academically. They are called “resilient.” In the US, only 5% of low income students classify as resilient, compared to 7% on average and around 15% for Hong Kong, Macao, Shanghai, and Vietnam.

This seems like it should be a strong point for the US. American dream, social mobility, all that, but as it turns out, it is the opposite. Ironically, unlike many other countries, the US does not show a big difference in the student-teacher ratio or teacher education levels in lower performing schools. So what is that difference? Facilities maybe? After school programs?  I’d be very interested to hear any ideas in that big comment box below.

In terms of school performance, some interesting results came up as well. First, across all the OECD countries, schools with more autonomy tended to perform better. So, the more control the principal had, when combined with accountability measures and strong principal-teacher interaction, the better the students did.

At the same time, there was no cross-country evidence that competition among schools in any way contributed to better student performance. In other words, students at schools that compete to enroll more kids performed at the same level as students that are pretty much stuck with their schools.

On the positive side, or not really, the US did score well in opinions about our own math skills. This comes despite a below average ranking in math. For example, 69% of respondents felt confident in their ability to calculate figures such as the gas consumption rate of a car. The OECD average was 56%. So, at least we are confident. And have warning lights for low fuel.

Socioeconomic barriers

On this blog, we’re always talking about problems in education that need solving. One of these is the socioeconomic gap in access, quality, and achievement. What specific issues should stakeholders in education be aware of in solving this problem? Here are some examples:

High cost

Sure, in most countries public education is funded by the taxpayer, so it’s ostensibly free. Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole picture. Even in the developed world, public education is often of low quality, requiring learners to supplement their instruction with expensive, resource-heavy private services. And outside of primary school education, the world is full of people who want to learn something but aren’t able to because of prohibitive costs.

Poor access/low quality

In low-income areas of developed countries, as well as those in the developing world, access to quality education is in short supply. Good teachers are few and far between, and other educational resources are even more scarce.

Lack of relevance

As we discussed in our commentary on curricular problems and in our last post, the things that are being taught in public schools are often irrelevant to the learners. For example, often people who require instruction in a trade will receive an abstract education that is of little use in advancing their career aspirations. There are no services broadly available to effectively and cheaply educate interested people in a subject they find relevant or necessary to their life or career advancement.

In our next installment, we’ll be talking about the ways in which online education technologies can help to address these issues.