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Stuart Kerachsky
Deputy Commissioner, National Center for Education Statistics

NCES Statement on PISA 2009
December 7, 2010

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics is releasing results on the performance of students in the United States on an international study, the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA measures 15-year-old students' literacy in reading, mathematics, and science every three years. PISA, first implemented in 2000, is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of 34 highly industrialized countries.

PISA uses the term "literacy" to denote its broad focus on the application of knowledge and skills in each subject area. Assessing 15-year-olds allows countries to compare outcomes of learning as students near the end of compulsory schooling. PISA's goal is to answer the question "What knowledge and skills do students have at age 15?" In this way, PISA's achievement scores represent a "yield" of learning at age 15, rather than a direct measure of attained curriculum knowledge at a particular grade level, because 15-year-olds in the United States and elsewhere come from several grade levels. When the assessment was administered in the United States in the fall of 2009, 69 percent of the sample of 15-year-olds was in tenth grade, 20 percent was in eleventh grade, and 11 percent was in ninth grade.

Sixty countries and 5 other education systems (education systems in non-national entities, such as Shanghai, China) participated as partners in PISA in 2009. All 34 OECD countries participated. The United States has participated in all four administrations of PISA (2000, 2003, 2006, and 2009).

Each PISA data collection assesses one of the three subject areas in depth, although all three are assessed in each cycle so that participating countries have an ongoing source of achievement data in reading, mathematics, and science literacy. In this fourth cycle, PISA 2009, reading literacy was the subject area assessed in depth. This is the first time that reading was the major domain since 2000, the first administration of PISA.

PISA 2009 was administered between September and November 2009 in the United States. The U.S. sample included both public and private schools, randomly selected and weighted to be representative of the nation. In order to reliably and accurately represent countries' performance, countries were required to sample at least 150 schools and 4,500 students (in countries having at least that many schools and students). In the United States, a total of 165 schools and 5,233 students participated in PISA 2009 in the United States.

NCES's PISA 2009 report, Highlights From PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context, provides international comparisons of average performance in reading literacy and three reading literacy subscales and in mathematics literacy and science literacy; average scores by gender for the United States and other countries, and by student race/ethnicity and school socioeconomic contexts within the United States; the percentages of students reaching PISA proficiency levels, for the United States and the OECD countries on average; and trends in U.S. performance over time. This PISA report is intended to be used by educators, policymakers, and interested members of the public. It is important to have the kind of assessment data that PISA provides as an external perspective on the performance of our nation's students.

Additional information is contained in supplemental tables on the NCES website. They show additional data from PISA 2009, including the percentages of students in all PISA countries reaching the PISA proficiency levels and information on trends in performance around the world. More information about how the PISA assessment was developed and conducted is included in the technical appendix of the U.S. national report on PISA. An additional source of information will be the PISA 2009 technical report to be published by the OECD in 2011.

U.S. Performance in Reading Literacy

The PISA 2009 assessment measured student performance on the combined reading literacy scale and on three reading literacy subscales: access and retrieve, integrate and interpret, and reflect and evaluate.

Performance on the Combined Reading Literacy Scale

U.S. 15-year-olds had an average score of 500 on the combined reading literacy scale, which was not measurably different from the OECD average score of 493. Of the 33 other OECD countries, 6 had higher average scores than the United States (Korea, Finland, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, and Australia), 13 had lower average scores, and 14 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average.

Among all 64 other countries and education systems, 9 had higher average scores than the United States, 39 had lower average scores, and 16 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average.

Performance of U.S. Students on the Reading Literacy Subscales

Since reading literacy was the major subject area for the 2009 cycle of PISA, results are shown for the combined reading literacy scale as well as for the three reading literacy subscales that describe reading aspects, or processes: accessing and retrieving information, integrating and interpreting, and reflecting and evaluating.

On the reflect and evaluate subscale, U.S. 15-year-olds had a higher average score than the OECD average. The U.S. average was lower than that of 5 OECD countries and higher than that of 23 OECD countries. Among all 64 other countries and education systems, 8 had higher average scores and 51 had lower average scores than the United States. On the other two subscales—access and retrieve and integrate and interpret—the U.S. average was not measurably different from the OECD average.

Proficiency Levels

Along with scale scores, PISA 2009 also uses seven proficiency levels to describe student performance in reading literacy (levels 1b through 6, with level 1b being the lowest and level 6 the highest). An additional category (below level 1b) includes students whose skills are not developed sufficiently to be described by PISA.

In reading literacy, 30 percent of U.S. students scored at or above proficiency level 4—not measurably different than the percentage of students in the OECD countries on average who performed at or above level 4. Level 4 is the level at which students are "capable of difficult reading tasks, such as locating embedded information, construing meaning from nuances of language and critically evaluating a text" (OECD 2010a, p. 51).

Eighteen percent of U.S. students scored below level 2 in reading literacy—not measurably different from the percentage of students in the OECD countries on average who scored below level 2. Students performing below level 2 in reading literacy are below what OECD calls "a baseline level of proficiency, at which students begin to demonstrate the reading literacy competencies that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life" (OECD 2010a, p. 52).

Trends in Performance in Reading Literacy

There was no measurable difference between the average score of U.S. students in reading literacy in 2000 and 2009 or between 2003 and 2009 (Because of an error in the printing of the U.S. test booklets in 2006, the U.S. reading literacy scores in PISA 2006 were not produced.). There were no measurable differences between the U.S. average score and the OECD average score in 2000 or in 2009.

Differences in U.S. Performance by School Socioeconomic Context

The report includes U.S. reading scores broken out by the percentage of students in a school who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL-eligible) through the National School Lunch Program, a proxy indicator of the socioeconomic status of families served by the school.

Students in public schools in which half or more of students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch (FRPL-eligible) scored, on average, below the overall OECD and U.S. average scores in reading literacy. Students in public schools in which less than 25 percent of students were FRPL-eligible scored, on average, above the overall OECD and U.S. average scores.

U.S. Performance in Mathematics Literacy

The U.S. average score in mathematics literacy (487) was lower than the OECD average score (496) in 2009, as it was in 2003 and 2006. In 2009, among the 33 other OECD countries, 17 countries had higher average scores than the United States, 5 had lower average scores, and 11 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average. The OECD countries with average scores higher than the U.S. average were led by Korea (546) and Finland (541). The OECD countries with lower average scores than the United States were Greece, Israel, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico. Among all 64 other countries and education systems, 23 had higher average scores than the United States, 29 had lower average scores, and 12 had average scores not measurably different from the U.S. average score. Shanghai-China and Singapore performed significantly higher, on average, than all other countries and education systems.

Proficiency Levels

PISA describes six mathematics literacy proficiency levels ranging from the most advanced at Level 6 to the lowest at Level 1. An additional category (below level 1) includes students whose skills are not developed sufficiently to be described by PISA.

Twenty-seven percent of U.S. students scored at or above proficiency level 4. This is lower than the 32 percent of students in the OECD countries on average who scored at or above level 4. At level 4 students can "complete higher order tasks" such as "solving problems that involve visual or spatial reasoning…in unfamiliar contexts." Twenty-three percent of U.S. students scored below level 2. As with reading literacy, level 2 on the mathematics literacy scale is considered a baseline of proficiency by OECD. Students reaching this level "demonstrate the kind of literacy skills that enable them to actively use mathematics." There was no measurable difference between the percentage of U.S. students and the percentage of students in the OECD countries on average who scored below level 2.

Trends in Performance in Mathematics Literacy

The U.S. average score in mathematics literacy in 2009 was higher than the U.S. average in 2006 but not measurably different from the U.S. average in 2003, the earliest time point to which PISA 2009 performance can be compared in mathematics literacy.

U.S. Performance in Science Literacy

On the science literacy scale, the average score of U.S. students (502) was not measurably different from the OECD average (501). Among the 33 other OECD countries, 12 had higher average scores than the United States, 9 had lower average scores, and 12 had average scores that were not measurably different from the U.S. average score. The OECD countries with higher average scores than the United States were led by Finland (554). The OECD countries with lower average scores than the United States were: the Slovak Republic, Italy, Spain, Luxembourg, Greece, Israel, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico. Among all 64 other countries and education systems, 18 had higher average scores, 33 had lower average scores, and 13 had average scores that were not measurably different from the U.S. average score.

Proficiency Levels

PISA describes six science literacy proficiency levels ranging from the most advanced at Level 6 to the lowest at Level 1. An additional category (below level 1) includes students whose skills are not developed sufficiently to be described by PISA.

Twenty-nine percent of U.S. students and students in the OECD countries on average scored at or above level 4 on the science literacy scale. Level 4 is the level at which students "select and integrate explanations from different disciplines of science or technology" and "link those explanations directly to…life situations" (OECD 2010a, p. 148). Eighteen percent of U.S. students and students in the OECD countries on average scored below level 2. Students performing below level 2 in reading literacy are below what OECD calls "a baseline level of proficiency, at which students begin to demonstrate the science competencies that will enable them to participate actively in life situations related to science and technology" (OECD 2010a, p. 148). There also were no measurable differences between the percentages of U.S. students and students in the OECD countries on average who scored at each of the six discrete science proficiency levels.

Trends in Performance in Science Literacy

The U.S. average score in science literacy in 2009 was higher than the U.S. average in 2006. While U.S. students scored, on average, below the OECD average in science literacy in 2006, the average score of U.S. students in 2009 was not measurably different from the 2009 OECD average.

Differences in Performance by Selected Student Characteristics

Gender

In reading literacy, female students scored higher, on average, than male students in all 65 participating countries and other education systems. In the United States, the difference was smaller than the difference in the OECD countries, on average, and smaller than the differences in 24 OECD countries and 21 non-OECD countries and other education systems. Only one country had a scale score difference between female and male students that was significantly smaller than the United States.

In mathematics literacy, male students scored higher on average than female students in 35 countries and education systems; female students scored higher on average than male students in 5 countries. The OECD average also was higher for male students (501) than female students (490). In the United States, the average score for male students was 497, higher than the average score for female students, 477.

In science literacy, male students scored higher on average than female students in 11 countries and female students scored higher on average than male students in 21 countries. The OECD average for both male and female students was 501. In the United States, the average score for male students was 509, higher than the average score for female students, 495.

Race/Ethnicity

Because racial and ethnic groups vary across countries, it is not possible to compare performance by race/ethnicity on international assessments. In the United States, students were asked whether they were of Hispanic origin and their race. Students who identified themselves as being of Hispanic origin were classified as Hispanic, regardless of race.

In all three subjects, White (non-Hispanic) and Asian (non-Hispanic) students had higher average scores than the overall OECD and U.S. average scores, while Black (non-Hispanic) and Hispanic students had lower average scores than the overall OECD and U.S. average scores. The average scores of students who reported two or more races were not measurably different from the overall OECD or U.S. average scores.

For More Information

This statement covers some of the major findings from PISA 2009 from the U.S. perspective.. The report and supplemental tables, available on the NCES website, provide the detail. The NCES International Data Explorer, where users can analyze PISA data and create tables and charts, is available at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/international/ide/.

Also, other findings are available in the OECD's report on PISA 2009, and additional results will be published by OECD in a series of future thematic reports. The PISA 2009 data will also be publicly available as of December 7, 2010 for independent analyses.

For more information on PISA and the U.S. PISA 2009 results, please visit the PISA website at http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/pisa.

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