Even the “Best” American Schools Can’t Compete Globally

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We’ve all winced at the numbers. U.S. students rank 17th, 26th, and 21st on the reading, math, and science portions of the PISA exam – well below many of their international peers.

But even while we recognize that these numbers are bad, many of us secretly reassure ourselves that such is not the case with the local schools which our children attend. Surely the American children struggling to keep up with the rest of the world are in other communities besides our own, right?

Not necessarily. As recent test scores demonstrate, students from well-to-do suburban and rural areas might not be doing as well as we imagine.

A case in point is the Kettle Moraine school district, located on the outskirts of Milwaukee. The district’s superintendent describes Kettle Moraine as “‘a very good school district.’” In this district, “only about 10 percent of the 1,300 students at Kettle Moraine High qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and about 90 percent are white.” And with the high graduation rates and ACT test scores which many of its students achieve, one would have to agree that Kettle Moraine’s students seem to be ahead of the pack.

However, Kettle Moraine recently had the opportunity to take the OECD Test for Schools, an exam which channels the official PISA test, but adapts it for individual American schools to see how competitive they are on the global stage. As it turns out, students from the high-achieving Kettle Moraine district weren’t leading the global pack in a key area. They were behind.

“PISA describes results on a scale with six levels. In reading and science, none of the Kettle Moraine High students were on levels five or six, the top ratings. Only 10 percent placed in the top levels on math. On the other hand, few placed on level one or below; the large majorities—83 percent in reading, 81 percent in math, and 100 percent in science—ranked in the middle. Among schools in the United States participating in the OECD Test for Schools in the first year, Kettle Moraine’s scores were above average in math and science, and a bit below the middle of the pack in reading.

If the 2012 PISA tests were the comparison point, Kettle Moraine High School’s 2014 scale score in math would place it among the top five countries, while its 2014 score in reading would place it in the bottom ten (see Figure 2).”

Kettle Moraine’s low reading scores were a bit of a surprise – and a wake-up call – to the district. They poured more effort into building student-teacher relationships and beefing up classroom comprehension. Their efforts appear to have paid off on the 2015 reading test, although the OECD put a disclaimer on the results due to a small sample size.

Such information should be a wake-up call to the rest of us as well. We can’t sit back on the laurels of our “good” and “high-achieving” schools because they might be falling behind as well.

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