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Global student assessment is a 'Sputnik' moment for U.S.

Dec 5, 2013 - By The Baltimore Sun

A report this week that American students are lagging behind their top international peers in math, reading and science should give pause to those who argue that the nation's school reform efforts are going too far and too fast. In fact, they suggest just the opposite: The, at best, middling scores of American 15-year-olds not only challenge the notion of American "exceptionalism," they also threaten over time to erode the educational foundations of the world's largest economy, along with its global, political and military influence.

The Program for International Student Assessment, which measures academic achievement in 65 of the world's wealthiest countries, found that students in the United States were outpaced by their peers elsewhere in all three subjects tested. Students in 29 countries or educational systems scored higher in math, while those in 22 countries did better in science, and 19 countries did better in reading. The PISA exam put students from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea at the top of its rankings, while several countries comparable to the United States, including Ireland and Poland, pulled ahead for the first time.

Meanwhile, American students did only about as well on the test as they did the last time it was administered, in 2009. Optimists might take that to mean that the United States is at least holding its own in the global educational competition, but the reality is that America is standing still while other countries forge ahead. And in a rapidly evolving global marketplace, standing still year after year is the same as falling behind.

This should be a "Sputnik moment" for U.S. educators, comparable to the wave of school reforms in America spurred by the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957.

The report contains some bright spots for educators here, among them the fact that the top U.S. students score well against their international peers and that some states, such as Massachusetts, are succeeding in breaking down many of the barriers to achievement for low-income and minority students.

Nevertheless income inequality remains one of the biggest factors in educational outcomes and it hurts both rich and poor families. U.S. students from affluent families, for example, still generally fare worse on the PISA exam than students from similar backgrounds elsewhere, even when their scores aren't skewed downward by averaging them with their less affluent peers.

This should be a wake-up call that America can neither rest on its laurels nor continue to lead the world in the 21st century unless it finds a way to close that gap and make high quality schools available to all children regardless of race, class or family income.

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