PISA results: Lagging U.S. students need more rigorous math

December 3, 2013

Schmidt-teachingAs American students continue to lag behind international peers in math skills, a Michigan State University scholar argues the United States could improve its standing by increasing exposure to formal math such as algebra and geometry consistent with the new Common Core State Standards. Math instruction also needs to be more consistent throughout the nation, said William Schmidt, University Distinguished Professor of education and statistics.

Schmidt said the latest results of the Program for International Student Assessment test, released Dec. 3, show there is a strong relationship between student performance and the amount of formal math taught—and, to a lesser extent, exposure to applied math—in schools.

The worldwide assessment of 15-year-olds occurs every three years, but it has never before connected what young people can do with what they reported learning as students. Schmidt was asked by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers PISA, to study the impact of schooling based on surveys collected for the first time from more than half-million students participating in PISA.

“Now we have more evidence that schooling matters,” said Schmidt, who has long studied results from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, another international test. “We found that the countries that do better (on PISA) tend to have more exposure to formal mathematics. This was true for every country.”

Although the United States ranks just 36th out of 64 countries, Schmidt said American students have improved slightly on a subset of results that relate to algebra since the last time PISA focused on math in 2003. He believes the change is based on a national movement to teach algebra in more rigorous, coherent ways starting in seventh grade and, thus, increase international competitiveness.

Schmidt and his team, including colleagues at the MSU Center for the Study of Curriculum, looked at differences in math exposure within PISA countries and found that the nations with the most variation in student learning experiences tend to have lower overall performance. This makes a strong case for adopting common standards, Schmidt said.

“The trend in PISA results for the U.S. is very encouraging,” he said. “With the Common Core State Standards now in place, maybe by the next time math is the focus of PISA nine years from now, we will have the chance of being above the OECD international average.”

Schmidt’s research also has implications for U.S. educators debating the benefits of teaching math in ways that connect concepts to real-world situations more frequently.

“While kids need to know their math, we found that those who are exposed to practical problems and test items in school tend to do better on the PISA test as well,” said Schmidt. However, it appears that more applied math isn’t always better. “There is a point at which it can actually be detrimental to students.”

Read the full white paper for more information.

Schmidt conducted the research as part of his role as a Thomas J. Alexander Fellow for OECD, and wrote a chapter within the 2012 PISA report.