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James Woodworth, PhD
Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics

NCES Commissionerís Statement on PISA 2018
December 3, 2019

Today, the National Center for Education Statistics is releasing U.S. results from the 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA is a study that measures how well 15-year-old students around the world can apply their knowledge of reading, mathematics, and science to real-world tasks—in other words, their “literacy” in each subject. PISA has been administered every three years since 2000 and is coordinated globally by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2018, 79 education systems participated in PISA, including all 37 member countries of the OECD and 42 other countries and subnational education systems.

The web report NCES has published today presents key findings about U.S. students’ reading, math, and science literacy, including how our students compare to their peers in other countries and how many are considered high and low performers. Overall, the latest results show no measurable change in U.S. average scores in any of the three subjects between 2018 and 2015. Average scores in reading and math literacy also showed no long-term change, while the average score in 2018 in science literacy was higher than in 2006, the earliest comparable time frame.

Comparing results internationally, U.S. 15-year-olds’ average reading and science scores were higher than the OECD average (the average of the national averages of the 37 OECD member countries), while the U.S. score in math was lower than the OECD average.

About PISA

PISA is a system of international assessments that allows countries to compare outcomes of learning as students near the end of compulsory schooling. By design, PISA aims to measure how well students can apply knowledge obtained both in and outside of the classroom to real-world scenarios and does not focus explicitly on curricular outcomes. PISA uses the term “literacy” in each subject area to indicate its broad focus on the application of knowledge and skills.

First conducted in 2000, PISA rotates the focus of the assessment among reading, math, and science literacy in each cycle, with one being the “major domain” and the other two being “minor domains.” Reading literacy was the major domain in 2018, which means about half of the assessment was devoted to reading items designed to measure students’ ability to engage with texts across a variety of scenarios and tasks, including digital contexts.

Each participating country was required to draw a representative sample of 15-year-olds enrolled in school, regardless of grade, educational track, or school program type. In some countries and subnational education systems, substantial proportions of 15-year-olds were not enrolled in school, so PISA estimates for these countries likely do not fully represent the abilities of their young people. In the vast majority of education systems in 2018, reading, math, and science literacy items were administered through a computer-based assessment.

How PISA Is Reported

PISA results are presented in the web report released today in terms of average scale scores with an original OECD average of 500 and an international standard deviation of 100 score points. The results are also presented as the percentage of 15-year-old students achieving the highest and lowest levels of proficiency in each subject. PISA findings compare the U.S. with other participating education systems, as well as with the OECD average.

In terms of reporting on student performance, PISA shows the percentage of 15-year-olds in each education system that scored at Proficiency Levels 5 and above and below Proficiency Level 2. Higher proficiency levels represent the knowledge, skills, and capabilities needed to perform tasks of greater complexity. At Proficiency Levels 5 and 6, students demonstrate higher-level skills and are referred to as “top performers” in the subject. Conversely, students performing below Proficiency Level 2 are considered “low performers” who are able to demonstrate only the most basic, everyday knowledge and skills.

All differences described here using PISA data are statistically significant at the .05 level. Differences that are not statistically significant are referred to as being “not measurably different.”

U.S. Performance in Reading Literacy—Major Domain

Average Scores
The U.S. average reading literacy score in 2018 (505) was higher than the OECD average (487). Compared to 35 other OECD members, it was lower than the average in 4 education systems, higher than the average in 21 education systems, and not measurably different than 10 education systems. †Average scores across all of the nearly 80 education systems reporting reading literacy results ranged from 555 in B-S-J-Z (representing the four participating China provinces of Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang) to 340 in the Philippines.

Looking at U.S. performance in reading literacy over time, the PISA 2018 average was not measurably different than any other cycle since the first PISA administration in 2000.

Proficiency Levels
In the United States, 14 percent of 15-year-old students scored at Proficiency Levels 5 and above. Compared to all of the countries and education systems that participated in 2018, the U.S. ranked 3rd in top performers, with only two education systems reporting a larger percentage of students achieving the highest proficiency levels. The U.S. percentage of top performers in 2018 was higher than the OECD average of 9 percent. Percentages of students who scored at Proficiency Levels 5 and above in reading literacy across all participating countries ranged from 26 percent in Singapore to nearly zero percent in 16 education systems.

The percentage of U.S. 15-year-olds scoring below Proficiency Level 2 in reading literacy was 19 percent, or about 1 in 5 students. The percentage of low performers in the U.S. was lower than the OECD average of 23 percent. Globally, percentages of students at the lowest levels of proficiency in reading literacy ranged from 5 percent in B-S-J-Z (China) to 81 percent in the Philippines.

U.S. Performance in Mathematics Literacy—Minor Domain

Average Scores
The U.S. average math literacy score in 2018 (478) was lower than the OECD average (489). Compared to 36 other OECD members, it was also lower than the average scores for 24 education systems, higher than the average scores for 6 education systems, and not measurably different than 6 education systems. Average scores across all of the nearly 80 education systems reporting math literacy results in 2018 ranged from 591 in B-S-J-Z (China) to 325 in the Dominican Republic.

Looking at U.S. performance in math literacy over time, the PISA 2018 average was not measurably different than in any of the previous PISA cycles as far back as 2003, the earliest comparable time point.

Proficiency Levels
In the United States, 8 percent of 15-year-old students scored at Proficiency Levels 5 and above. Compared to all of the countries and education systems that participated in 2018, the U.S. ranked 30th in top performers. The U.S. percentage of top performers in 2018 was lower than the OECD average of 11 percent. Percentages of students who scored at Proficiency Levels 5 and above in math literacy across all participating countries ranged from 44 percent in B-S-J-Z (China) to nearly zero percent in 9 education systems.

The percentage of U.S. 15-year-olds scoring below Proficiency Level 2 in math literacy was 27 percent, or about 1 in 4 students. The percentage of low performers in the United States was higher than the OECD average of 24 percent. Globally, percentages of students at the lowest levels of proficiency in math literacy ranged from 2 percent in B-S-J-Z (China) to 91 percent in the Dominican Republic.

U.S. Performance in Science Literacy—Minor Domain

Average Scores
The U.S. average science literacy score in 2018 (502) was higher than the OECD average (489). Compared to 36 other OECD members, it was lower than the average scores for 6 education systems, higher than the average scores for 19 education systems, and not measurably different than 11 education systems. Average scores across all of the nearly 80 education systems reporting science literacy results ranged from 590 in B-S-J-Z (China) to 336 in the Dominican Republic.

Looking at U.S. performance in science literacy over time, the PISA 2018 average was higher than in 2006, the earliest comparably time frame, but was unchanged from 2015.

Proficiency Levels
In the United States, 9 percent of 15-year-old students scored at Proficiency Levels 5 and above in science literacy. Compared to all of the countries and education systems that participated in 2018, the U.S. ranked 11th in top performers. The U.S. percentage of top performers in 2018 was higher than the OECD average of 7 percent. Percentages of students who scored at Proficiency Levels 5 and above in science literacy across all participating countries ranged from 32 percent in B-S-J-Z (China) to nearly zero percent in 18 education systems.

The percentage of U.S. 15-year-olds scoring below Proficiency Level 2 in science literacy was 19 percent, or about 1 in 5 students. The percentage of low performers in the U.S. was lower than the OECD average of 22 percent. Globally, percentages of students at the lowest levels of proficiency ranged from 2 percent in B-S-J-Z (China) to 85 percent in the Dominican Republic.

For More Information

This statement highlights some of the major findings from PISA 2018 from the U.S. perspective; further results, data tables, and details on key findings are available in the Highlights of U.S. PISA 2018 Results Web Report. For more information on PISA and the U.S. PISA 2018 results, including additional results not discussed here, please visit the NCES website. Additional international findings are available in the OECD’s report on PISA 2018.

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