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Educational score cards give U.S. bad grades.

America's educational system is under siege, and everyone is to blame for its problems. The federal government is doing too much or too little. Perhaps the jaded, unionized teachers are to blame, or maybe it's the meddlesome, politicized school boards. Parents complain when their children are expected to do homework. Even the kids are often lazy, whiny, and more interested in Facebook than in textbooks. The fuel for these accusations often stems from international comparisons of student performance, which generally show American students falling far behind their "peers" in other developed industrial countries and barely keeping ahead of deprived students in the developing world.

Although they are often used to buttress polemics, the educational score card databases are based on large volumes of conscientious, thorough, and systematic research. Conducted by respected government organizations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), these databases analyze numerous factors of school system performance and rank it by country or, in the U.S., by state. Their websites contain full-text reports, often with interactivity to support user-defined analysis.

International Score Cards

The most controversial and widely cited educational score cards compare elementary and secondary school systems by country. Depending upon country rank, the scores can cause celebration or lamentation. Although their intent is to improve school performance everywhere, their results are often cherry-picked for political purposes.

Program for International Student Assessment

Probably the most widely cited educational score card is PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is sponsored by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). Almost 60 countries, including 30 OECD members, participate. PISAstudies, which were done in 2000, 2003, and 2006 (with 2009 results to be released in late 2010), examine performance of 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading, with separate rankings for each. Across all three areas, the top-performing countries are Finland, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the Northern and Western European nations, and the English-speaking nations, especially Canada and New Zealand. Overall, U.S. students performed well-below OECD country average scores. But the U.S. was the only country that had substantial numbers of students performing at the highest and lowest levels.


Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is a large-scale survey of mathematics and science performance by fourth graders and eighth graders. The survey is sponsored in the U.S. by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation and is sponsored globally by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. It covers fewer countries than PISA (36), but it has a larger percentage of poor countries. For both grade levels and in both subjects, the top school systems are located in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan. Just below these leaders is a medley of European and English-speaking countries--just barely including the U.S., which ranks between ninth and 12th in the four tests. This may seem to be a stronger performance than in PISA, but since TIMSS evaluates fewer and poorer countries, it's easier to be in the top 10--or just out of it.

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) covers reading achievement, attitudes, and behavior, and is coordinated by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. The studies were conducted in 2001 and 2006. The 2006 study tested fourth graders in 45 education systems, including countries and subnational education systems such as Canadian provinces. The top PIRLS performers are more varied than in PISA and TIMSS. The overall top scorer is the Russian Federation, followed by Hong Kong; Alberta, Canada; British Columbia, Canada; Singapore; Luxembourg; Ontario, Canada; Hungary; Italy; and Sweden. Once again, the U.S. falls in the middle of the PIRLS pack.

U.S. State Rankings: National Assessment of Educational Progress

The leading database of U.S. state data is the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). NAEP, which covers mathematics, reading, science, writing, the arts, civics, economics, geography, and U.S. history, is given to students in grades four, eight, and 12. Student performance is broken down by state and by demographic and socioeconomic criteria, such as gender, family income, parental education, and so forth. States are ranked according to these individual metrics, but NAEP does not produce a single overall state ranking.

No Child Left Behind

In recent years, the most volatile domestic educational assessment has been the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which has been under attack since its inception in 2002. NCLB, which is a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, is the main federal law affecting education from kindergarten through high school. The NCLB website is quite bland: no lists of failed schools, no acknowledgement of the program's harsh critiques, and no discussion of the dangers of "teaching to the test." Instead, the site contains summary results of fourth- and eighth-grade performance by state, with breakdowns into demographic and socioeconomic categories.

Higher Education Rankings

In the U.S., the best-known ranking of higher education institutions is the popular "Best Colleges" series from U.S. News & World Report. These are so well-known, they don't require discussion here, and they are domestic, of course. There are two prominent surveys that rank the world's universities. Their results vary significantly, which is probably due to different scoring criteria.

Academic Ranking of World Universities

The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) was initiated in 2003 by the Center for World-Class Universities and the Institute of Higher Education of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, China; since 2009, it's been conducted by the Shanghai Ranking Consultancy. ARWU uses six criteria to rate 1,000 universities worldwide. ARWU's 2009 top-10 list presents the success story of U.S. higher education. The U.S. has eight of the top 10 universities, including Harvard University, Stanford University, University of California--Berkeley, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Columbia University, Princeton University, and the University of Chicago. Only two non-U.S. schools, both British, are included in the top 10: the University of Cambridge (fourth) and Oxford University (10th).

Times Higher Education World University Rankings

From 2004 to 2009, Times Higher Education compiled its World University Rankings in partnership with QS (Quacquarelli Symonds Ltd.), a conferencing company. The Times Higher Education 2009 ranking had a different top 10 from ARWU, with a much stronger British presence: Harvard, Cambridge, Yale, University College London, Imperial College London, Oxford, University of Chicago, Princeton, MIT, and Caltech. The 2010 rankings (due in the fall of 2010) will be done in partnership with Thomson Reuters. QS, the Times' previous partner, will continue its own ranking project.

How Long Will the U.S. Compete?

American universities deserve their rankings, but the scores for the elementary and secondary systems are disturbing. They consistently show that U.S. students at all levels perform below the standards of the U.S.'s presumptive peer countries. These numbers (as always) are subject to different interpretations. U.S. students' scores have long been below those of our economic and political competitors. But it is argued that U.S. schools encourage critical thinking and intellectual creativity, which are ultimately more conducive to progress and accomplishment. This may be true, but when I hear it, I'm reminded of the investment disclaimer that "past performance is no guarantee of future results." The counterpoint is that (in its education, in its economy, and in other ways) the U.S. is living off of past glories; it is spending down its principal and not investing for the future. But regardless of your take on the educational score cards, the numbers strongly suggest that there will be winners (and losers) in a worldwide knowledge-driven economy.

Educational Score Cards


The educational score card databases analyze the performance of educational systems on the elementary/secondary and postsecondary levels. They report on students' achievement at different grade levels and in a variety of subjects. School systems are ranked by country and by U.S. states.


Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development;

Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. Department of Education, the National Science Foundation, and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement;

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement;

National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), National Center for Education Statistics;

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), U.S. Department of Education;

Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), Shanghai Ranking Consultancy;

World University Rankings, Times Higher Education; pubCode=1&navcode=148.

Mick O'Leary is the director of the library at Frederick, Md., and a principal in The Data Brokers. His email address is Send your comments about this column to
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Title Annotation:Database Review
Author:O'Leary, Mick
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2010
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