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Regular version of the site

BRINGING IT BACK HOME: Why state comparisons are more useful than international comparisons for improving U.S. education policy

Since its inception in 2000, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)1—an international test ofreading, math, and science—has shown that American 15-year-olds perform more poorly, on average, than15-year-olds in many other developed countries. This finding is generally consistent with results from anotherinternational assessment of 8th graders, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

International test rankings have come to dominate how politicians and pundits judge the quality of countries’ educationsystems, including highly heterogeneous systems such as that of the United States. While international tests and internationalcomparisons are not without merit, international test data are notoriously limited in their ability to shed lighton why students in any country have higher or lower test scores than in another. Policy prescriptions based on thesetest results therefore risk being largely descriptive, based on correlational evidence that offers limited and less-thanconvincingproof of the factors that actually drive student performance.

Indeed, from such tests, many policymakers and pundits have wrongly concluded that student achievement in theUnited States lags woefully behind that in many comparable industrialized nations, that this shortcoming threatens thenation’s economic future, and that these test results therefore demand radical school reform that includes importingfeatures of schooling in higher-scoring countries.

This report challenges these conclusions. It focuses on the relevance of comparing U.S. national student performancewith average scores in other countries when U.S. students attend schools in 51 separate education systems run not bythe federal government, but by states (plus the District of Columbia). To compare achievement in states with each otherand with other countries, we use newly available data for student mathematics and reading performance in U.S. statesfrom the 2011 TIMSS and 2012 PISA, as well as several years of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). In particular, we use information on mathematics and reading performance of 15-year-olds from thePISA data, information on mathematics performance in 8th grade from the TIMSS data, and information on mathematicsand reading performance of students in 4th and 8th grade from the NAEP data.

We conclude that the most important lessons U.S. policymakers can learn about improving education emerge fromexamining why some U.S. states have made large gains in math and reading and achieve high average test scores. Thelessons embedded in how these states increased student achievement in the past two decades are much more relevant toimproving student outcomes in other U.S. states than looking to high-scoring countries with social, political, and educationalhistories that differ markedly from the U.S. experience. No matter how great the differences among U.S. states’social and educational conditions, they are far smaller than the differences between the United States as a whole and,say, Finland, Poland, Korea, or Singapore. As such, this report starts the process of delving into the rich data availableon student academic performance in U.S. states over the past 20 years—and shows that the many major state successesshould be our main guide for improving U.S. education.