Middle Class and Middle of the Pack

New report reveals America’s middle class students are lagging behind other nations and highlights individual U.S. schools outperforming every country in the world.

Many Americans think a serious need for better educational performance is largely restricted to low-income schools and communities and that middle class lifestyles equate to a world-class education. A new report from America Achieves, a nonprofit educational organization, suggests otherwise. (also see FAQs about the OECD Test for Schools).

While the need for educational improvement in low-income communities is real and important, this new report suggests that the need also extends deeply into America’s middle class. The report is based on new analyses of math and science data disaggregated by economic and social advantage from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). U.S. students in the second to top quarter of socio-economic advantage lag behind their international peers—significantly outperformed by 24 countries and regions in math and 15 in science. Previously published results show that U.S. students in the second quarter of economic advantage lag significantly behind 10 other countries in reading.

The America Achieves report also has some good news—highlighting case studies of individual U.S. schools that are global leaders. These school-level results come from a pilot study involving 105 U.S. high schools that took a new test known as the OECD test for schools that is based on the highly respected Program for International Student Assessment or "PISA exam." The case studies of schools that participated in the pilot include U.S. high schools that outperform the average results of every country in the world that participated in PISA 2009. For example, the performance of Woodson High School in Virginia and BASIS Tucson North in Arizona, in the pilot of the OECD Test for Schools, is higher than the average performance of every other nation in the world that participated in PISA.

Meanwhile, a middle class school serving a similar student population had lower results than those of29 countries in math, 21 in science and 35 in reading from PISA 2009. As it turns out, under its home state grading system based on the state assessment, this underperforming school (by global standards) earned an "A" in 2011-2012.

The OECD Test for Schools is a school-level internationally benchmarked tool that measures reading, math and science knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds, as well as key competencies such as critical thinking and problem-solving. The assessment gives schools scores comparable to the PISA scales when administered under appropriate conditions. The OECD Test for Schools and the main PISA studies are different assessments, however, and should not be confused. PISA provides participating countries with national and in some cases sub-national estimates of student performance. The United States has participated in PISA since the first cycle in 2000, and results from the 2012 cycle will be published on December 3, 2013.

The development of the assessment by the OECD was made possible by America Achieves, Bloomberg Philanthropies, Carnegie Corporation of New York, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Kern Family Foundation. Additional support was provided by the Craig and Barbara Barrett Foundation, National Public Education Support Fund, the Stuart Foundation, and the Rodel Charitable Foundation of Arizona.“We can’t be complacent when it comes to our schools” said John Engler, president of the Business Roundtable. “We do not just have a jobs problem, we have a skills gap and today’s students will not be competitive for the job of their dreams if we do not expect more out of our public school system.”

Starting in the fall of 2013, schools in the United States that want to benchmark themselves against high performing countries and schools can take the OECD test for schools. Financial support from major foundations, including Bloomberg Philanthropies, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Kern Family Foundation, will make the next phase of the project possible. This phase includes development of the assessment and growth of the program.

“In a global economy, the benchmark for educational success is no longer progress by state standards alone, but the best performing education systems internationally, said Andreas Schleicher, special advisor on education policy to OECD's secretary-general and deputy director for education. “With this new OECD Test, schools now have the tools to see themselves in the light of what the world’s educational leaders show can be achieved.”

The pilot program provided schools with the information they need to learn and improve their own educational outcomes as part of a pilot effort where the names of participating schools are kept confidential.

“This study highlights the great news that we can learn from individual U.S. schools that are leading the world in educational performance,” said Jon Schnur, executive chairman of America Achieves. “But this report also shows a crucial need for better education for all students including not only low-income communities but middle class communities as well.”

“America must focus on preparing our students to compete globally’" said Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper. “Every U.S. high school should know how they measure up, and share best practices to improve education for all students.”

Each of the schools that participated received a lengthy report from the OECD identifying strengths, weaknesses and strategies for improvement. The reports show clear trends around high levels of expectations, teacher quality, the importance of student engagement and the need to create a supportive learning environment at the school. The reports also offer concrete examples of effective practice in countries with high results, including concrete direction from school leaders, peer-to-peer mentoring, rigorous curriculum and course loads and supports for failing students.

“This program provides valuable information for families and schools to act upon,” said National PTA President Betsy Landers. “Armed with this information, parents and educators can advocate for more rigorous classwork benchmarked to the new common core state standards that will ultimately position our students to succeed in a competitive, global job market.”

The full report and more information on how a school or district can take the challenge and benchmark themselves against the world’s best can go to: AmericaAchieves.org.

America Achieves helps communities and states leverage policy, practice, and leadership to build high-quality educational systems and prepare each young person for success in careers, college, and citizenship