The PISA-Is your student globally competitive?

As I’ve mentioned previously, school grades are subjective and therefore often unreliable as a standard.  Report card grades reflect a host of factors from test and quiz results to class participation and homework.  Standards differ not only among schools within a state, but also schools within a district and even classes within a school.  Teachers develop tests to determine their students’ mastery of a particular subject.  These types of tests are “criterion-based tests.” Many parents appear perplexed that their children, who maintain high grades in their classes or rank highly within their particular school, do not perform well on private school or college entrance exams. To understand how students are achieving beyond the school level, they must take take a test that indicates a person’s score against the scores of a group of people who have already taken the same exam, called the “norming group.” These are “norm-referenced tests (NRT’s).  According to, schools use a variety of these tests to determine their students’ achievement: “Commercial, national, norm-referenced “achievement” tests include the California Achievement Test (CAT); Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS), which includes the “Terra Nova”; Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS) and Tests of Academic Proficiency (TAP); Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT); and Stanford Achievement Test (SAT, not to be confused with the college admissions SAT). Independent school exams like the SSAT and ISEE, as well as college entrance exams (ACT and SAT), do provide objective data. However, their sample groups do not  provide a reliable indicator of an entire age group’s achievement, as the testing group is skewed; only those applying to private schools, colleges and universities take these exams.

The Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development designs and administers an NRT known as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).  Thirty-four countries participate in PISA.  The target groups for this test are teens aged fifteen years.  According to the last published report in 2012, American students do no fare well: “Among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in mathematics in 2012 and is ranked 27th . . .  Performance in reading and science are both close to the OECD average. . . The United States ranks 17 in reading and 20 in science. There has been no significant change in these performances over time.”

Why are our students performing so poorly compared to their global age-mates? The developers of the test have provided some explanation.  One is the heterogeneous nature of the population in the United States. “The relationship between socio-economic background and learning outcomes is stronger in the United States than in most of the top-performing systems; around half of the students in disadvantaged schools have average or better achievement in mathematics.” Regardless of the reasons, American students will benefit from raising expectations and increasing academic rigor, so our students compete on the global stage.

Young students in elementary or middle school can take the private school exams to determine their ranking compared to their age mates, as waiting until high school years may be too late for significant change. The OECD has provided sample questions in reading, math, and science. If you’d like to know how your teen would perform on this exam, take a look the PISA website, or click on


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