Running in the Middle of the Pack: Judging Progress in Educational Achievement

Where's the quarterback?
Where’s the quarterback?

Jeremy Simon, Harvard Graduate School of Education

In the United States we treat education like it is a sport. And thanks to the PISA, an international test administered to 15 year olds around the world which produces a ranking of countries’ achievement in math, science, and reading every three years, we know who is winning. But winning isn’t all that is important in education. For that we need to consider how education is more like running a marathon and less like the Super Bowl.

There is only one Super Bowl winner every year. But education has more in common with a marathon, not a tournament. While it is true all runners would like to be the first ones across the finish line, an appeal of marathon running is that each racer is competing not only against her or his fellow runners but also themselves. They are striving to set a new personal best and see how their new training regimen paid off from last time, all while racing not only one another but the clock as well.

Education is a marathon and PISA is the race. Every three years there will only be one PISA “winner”, but dozens of countries will have the opportunity to see if they improved, regressed, or stayed the same.

If the goal of every runner in a marathon was to win then there would be hundreds of losers in every event. Similarly, if every country only focused on where they ranked in the PISA, the test would produce dozens of losers. But if we focus on the PISA score and not the ranking, much like a runner might examine her time and not her place, we can understand how the PISA is invaluable for evaluating if a country is getting better or worse at educating its children.

A marathon runner races themselves and the other runners. Even when victory is impossible, a marathoner can still cross the finish line and immediately know if the hard work they had put into training for the race had paid off with an improved time. Similarly, countries can use the PISA to measure their progress and determine how effective their attempts to improve have been.

For example, the United States can use its PISA score to see how consistently we have performed in reading. In the initial PISA test the U.S. scored a 504 in reading. Twelve years later we regressed slightly, scoring 498. This tells us that U.S. reading performance didn’t improve during that time. But the rankings tell a different story. In 2000 the U.S. ranked 16th in the world in reading. By 2012 we had dropped to 24th.

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If the United States were obsessed with PISA rankings these results would be a disheartening trend. However, by using PISA scores and not rankings, the U.S. can at least understand that we have stagnated, not fallen, in reading scores.

Admittedly a plateau in progress isn’t an achievement worth celebrating. But knowing that as a country we haven’t gotten worse but other countries have gotten better is critical information for U.S. educators and policy makers. When competing in education, the U.S. should be thankful the PISA is a marathon and not the Super Bowl.

Useful links

OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)

OECD education working papers

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