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Nancy  Madsen
By Nancy Madsen February 8, 2013

McDonnell says U.S. education is "slipping" behind other nations

For the good of the state and the good of the nation, Gov. Bob McDonnell has asked the General Assembly to approve a package of education reforms this winter.

"The brutal fact is, when it comes to educating our young people, America is slipping,"  McDonnell said in his State of the Commonwealth address on Jan. 9.

"While Virginia's schools rate well nationally, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, the United States now ranks 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in mathematics." he added. "This is unacceptable. Those are not grades that we want to put on the national refrigerator."

We checked whether the U.S. really is slipping in world education rankings.

McDonnell made the claim while urging lawmakers to approve his education agenda that would grade all public schools and empower the state to take over schools that receive failing marks.

The international assessment test McDonnell cited is a two-hour exam given to a representative sample of 15-year-olds in an increasing number of nations.  The testing started in 2000 and has been given every three years to measure literacy in reading, math and science. The results show the average scores, weighted for demographics, in each country.

Most of the 34 member nations belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development -- an industrialized group of mostly Western European and North American countries -- participate each testing cycle. A smattering of other countries, such as Russia, Indonesia and Brazil, and regional educational systems in China also take part.  

In 2000, 32 countries participated. That grew to 65 nations in 2009, the most recent test year with published results.  

Let’s look at the United States’ rankings, as reported by the National Center for Educational Statistics:

*In 2000, the U.S. was 15th among 28 OECD countries and 15th of 32 total nations.
*In 2003, 15th among 30 OECD countries and 18th among 41 overall.
*In 2006, U.S. scores were not tabulated because of a printing error in the test books.
*In 2009, tied for 12th among 34 OECD countries and was 15th among 65 total nations.

*In 2000, the U.S. was 14th among the 28 OECD countries and 14th of 32 total nations.
*In 2003, 19th among 30 OECD countries and 22nd among 41 overall.
*In 2006, 21st among 30 OECD countries and 27th among 57 overall.
*In 2009, 17th among 34 OECD countries and 23rd among 65 overall.

*In 2000, the U.S was 18th among 28 OECD countries and 19th of 32 total nations.
*In 2003, 24th among 30 OECD countries and 27th among 41 overall.
*In 2006, 25th among 30 OECD countries and 35th among 57 overall.
*In 2009, 25th among 34 OECD countries and 31st among 65 overall.

Now, let’s take a look at the actual test scores over the last decade, which were calculated on a scale from 0 to 1,000. We can compare the average score of U.S. students to those of all students from OECD nations. The National Center for Educational Statistics does not compute a worldwide average that includes every single nation that participates in the test.

In reading, the U.S. average was 504 in 2000, 495 in 2003 and 500 in 2009. Results, as we noted, were not tabulated in 2006. The OECD average was 500 in 2000, 494 in 2003 and 493 in 2009.

In science, the U.S. average was 499 in 2000, 491 in 2003, 489 in 2006 and 502 in 2009. The OECD average was each year was either 500 or 501.

In math, U.S. students scored 493 in 2000, 483 in 2003, 474 in 2006 and 487 in 2009. The OECD average was 500 for the first two tests, followed by 498 and 496.

What conclusions should be drawn from this data? Experts said the results do not show a decline in America’s education standing, but a solid, middle-of-the pack position.

"The pattern of scores over the years shows that we’ve held fairly steady," said Robert Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia.

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies international testing, said scores bounce around routinely, but the long-term trend is positive in American education. The U.S. participates in several international tests and typically scores in the the middle or just above the middle of the pack.

"All these tests measure different things, but they all confirm that education is improving, it could be improving faster and there is more room for improvement, but we’re definitely not in decline," he said. "The idea that any of these tests are saying that American education is in decline is false."

McDonnell is hardly the first politician to claim the U.S. education system is slipping in status. Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate for president last year, cited the same statistics and said the country has "fallen way behind." And in 2009, President Barack Obama said that "we have let our grades slip" and "other nations outpace us."

Loveless says it’s simply not the case.

"The first international test was given in 1960 to 12 countries and the U.S. came in 11th out of 12," he said. "We’ve never done well on these tests."

Loveless said the U.S. -- unlike some of the nations with top test rankings -- tends to prize well-rounded students by teaching many subjects, encouraging extracurricular activities and social interaction at school.

We asked McDonnell’s office if it had any further explanation of the governor’s statement.

"In the past decade, the United States has not ranked among the top 10 countries in reading literacy, science literacy or mathematics literacy," Paul Logan, deputy director of communications, said in an email. "The governor believes that every year we lag behind other countries in education is a year in which we are slipping in our ability to compete for the jobs of the 21st century."

Our ruling

McDonnell said that "when it comes to educating our young people, America is slipping" in worldwide rankings. The international test results he referred to have been administered every three years since 2000.

There’s a tiny element of truth to McDonnell’s claim: America’s math standing dipped last decade when compared with other nations in the OECD. But even that overlooks the fact that U.S. math scores, after a mid-decade drop, rebounded in 2009, when the last test results were published. And when all countries that took the exam in 2009 are considered, the U.S. ranked in the top half in math for the first time.

McDonnell ignored critical facts that paint a different picture of America’s performance. During the last decade, the U.S. edged up in the rankings on reading and remained at the 50th percentile in science among OECD nations.   

"Slipping" implies lower scores and rankings. That’s not the case. The U.S. has never ranked near the top in education test scores and, with a possible exception for math, has not lost ground to other countries. We rate McDonnell’s claim Mostly False.

Our Sources

Gov. Bob McDonnell, "Governor McDonnell Delivers 2013 State of the Commonwealth Address," Jan. 9, 2013.

Email from Paul Logan, McDonnell’s deputy director of communications, Feb. 24, 2013.

National Center for Education Statistics, "Highlights from PISA 2009: performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context," December 2010.

NCES, "Highlights from PISA 2006: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy in an International Context," December 2007.

NCES, "International Outcomes of Learning in Mathematics Literacy and Problem Solving: PISA 2003 Results from the U.S. Perspective," December 2004.

NCES, "Outcomes of Learning: Results from the 2000 program for International Student Assessment of 15-Year-Olds in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy," December 2001.

The Washington Post, "Parsing Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s education agenda," Jan. 10, 2013.

The Washington Post, "Romney’s education speech - text," May 23, 2012.

Chicago Sun-Times, "Obama education speech in Ohio. Transcript." Sept. 9, 2008.

The Wall Street Journal, "Obama’s Remarks on Education," March 10, 2009.

Interview with Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, Feb. 6, 2013.

Interview with Tom Loveless, senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, Feb. 6, 2013.

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