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New Jersey students may perform better than their counterparts in many other states, but from a global perspective, students across the United States are falling behind.
State Sen. Jim Whelan (D-Atlantic) raised that point during a Jan. 9 debate on the Senate floor about the Urban Hope Act. That legislation, passed by the Legislature and quickly signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie, allows nonprofit entities to build and run schools in three failing districts.
Before casting his vote in favor of the bill, Whelan told his fellow legislators that "we’ve got to change the conversation" and consider a longer school year.
"Let’s look where we are in the world. We’re twenty-sixth," said Whelan, a teacher in Atlantic City. "United States of America is twenty-sixth in school performance in the world."
PolitiFact New Jersey found the numbers that back up Whelan’s statistic, but due to the margins of error attached to the average test scores, the 26th ranking may not be completely accurate.
Let’s explain the test we’re talking about.
The test -- known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA -- is overseen by the Paris, France-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The test assesses 15- and 16-year-olds for reading, math and science.
The PISA was administered in 65 countries or economies in 2009, and another 10 participants in 2010. Of those 75 participants, the United States ranks 26 when the mean scores in the three subject areas are averaged out.
Anthony Jackson, vice president for education at Asia Society, a global educational organization, said in an email that such a composite ranking gives a "broader sense of how student performance in the US (or any nation) compares with that of other nations beyond its performance in any one subject area."
Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's Indicators and Analysis Division in the Directorate for Education, told us averaging the scores is acceptable, but he cautioned: "I would still not call this ‘overall performance’ since there are a number of school subjects not measured by PISA (e.g. history, geography or music)."
But rankings may not be as clear-cut when factoring in the margins of error attached to the average scores.
Those margins of error make it difficult to rank countries for both the individual subject areas as well as the composite averages, according to Dana Kelly, co-national project manager of PISA in the United States.
"It may appear that the U.S. average is lower (or higher) than another country when actually there is not a measurable difference in the average scores," Kelly said in an email. "Likewise, countries ‘above’ us may not have measurably different average scores from each other so (it) gets even more difficult to figure out where we are in a ranking."
"We understand that people want to know where the US stands, but ranking is just tricky," Kelly added.
Beth Schroeder, Whelan’s chief of staff, defended the senator in an email:
"The point Senator Whelan was trying to make still stands. By any measure, the United States is lagging behind the rest of the world in school performance. Whether we’re 26th or some other rank once you factor in the margin of error, we should be striving to have the best educational system in the world, and shouldn’t settle for anything but first."
During a debate on the Senate floor, Whelan claimed the "United States of America is twenty-sixth in school performance in the world."
Based on the most recent international assessments, the senator’s statistic is on target. After averaging out the mean scores in reading, math and science, the United States ranks 26 out of 75 participating countries or economies.
But since those mean scores are subject to margins of error -- which could alter the rankings -- we rate the statement Mostly True.
To comment on this ruling, go to NJ.com.
Speech by state Sen. Jim Whelan on state Senate floor, Jan. 5, 2012
PolitiFact Wisconsin, Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch says that U.S. students rank 25th of 29 developing countries in science and math, Feb. 6, 2011
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, PISA 2009 Results, Dec. 7, 2010
Asia Society, Top School Systems Announced, Dec. 7, 2010
Asia Society, Asia: New Top of the Class, Dec. 7, 2010
U.S. Department of Education, Highlights From PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context, December 2010
Australian Council for Educational Research, PISA 2009 Plus Results: Performance of 15-year-olds in reading, mathematics and science for 10 additional participants, December 2011
National Council for the Social Studies, PISA Scores Released: What does this mean for education policy?, Dec. 8, 2010
Harvard Kennedy School, Globally Challenged: Are U. S. Students Ready to Compete? The latest on each state’s international standing in math and reading, August 2011
Huffington Post, Successful Schools Have a Global Orientation, Dec. 15, 2010
E-mail interview with Andreas Schleicher, head of the OECD's Indicators and Analysis Division in the Directorate for Education, Jan. 16, 2012
Phone and email interviews with Beth Schroeder, chief of staff for Sen. Jim Whelan, Jan. 19, 2012
Interview with Sen. Jim Whelan, Jan. 19, 2012
Newsweek, The World’s Best Countries, Aug. 15, 2010
Email interview with Anthony Jackson, Asia Society, Jan. 30-31, 2012
Email interview with Sophie Vayssettes, an analyst in the OECD's Indicators and Analysis Division in the Directorate for Education, Feb. 1, 2012
Email interviews with Holly Xie and Dana Kelly, co-National Project Managers of PISA in the United States, Feb. 1-2, 2012
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States, 2011
Phone and email interviews with Beth Schroeder, chief of staff to Sen. Jim Whelan, Jan. 19 and Feb. 1-2, 2012
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