Mostly True
"United States of America is twenty-sixth in school performance in the world."

Jim Whelan on Monday, January 9th, 2012 in a speech on the state Senate floor

United States ranks 26th in school performance in the world, senator says

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."

Our ruling

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.

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