PISA Results: NC Schools Perform Well, But Show Plenty of Room to Grow

The results from an international test of 15-year-olds show that North Carolina students are competitive with worldwide peers in reading and science, but lag significantly in mathematics.

Administered every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a worldwide benchmark of national education systems. In the 2015 test, students from North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Puerto Rico represented the United States.

While North Carolina students were competitive in reading and science with nations from the European Union nations, such as United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Denmark, they were less proficient in mathematics and even fell below the average score of all nations.

Massachusetts, by contrast, was at the top performance tier, and ahead of North Carolina, in all three subjects. The students in Massachusetts scored on par with Finland, Canada, Singapore, Japan, South Korea, and China.

Students from Puerto Rico performed below North Carolina and most nations in all three subjects.

The good news from this data for North Carolina is that students here are receiving a world-class education. This shows that teaching practices are sound in science and reading literacy, and while North Carolina’s math performance was its weakest area, it was still comparable to the US average score and scores in Israel, Hungary, and the Slovak Republic, among others.

This was the first time that North Carolina students participated in the PISA exam, and these results differ from the state’s performance on the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), a test that is administered every other year and commonly referred to as the “nation’s report card.”

Looking at the 2013 NAEP tests of eighth graders – students who were most likely to be eligible to take the PISA test in 2015 – North Carolina’s reading scores were 37th in the nation compared to Massachusetts’s first place score, and North Carolina was 23rd in math while Massachusetts was also in first place.

Eighth graders did not take the science NAEP test in 2013, however, science scores of 12th graders in 2015 put Massachusetts at 6th and North Carolina at 35th.

While the results from NAEP and PISA cannot be compared apples-to-apples, the results from both tests follow the trend where Massachusetts places well ahead of North Carolina. Yet, the two states are reasonably comparable based on US Census data.

Based on these trends, North Carolina’s long-range plans for public education need to be clear and, above all, stable.

Part of Massachusetts’s success story is the fact that it adopted rigorous academic standards as part of its 1993 Education Reform Act. Those standards were in place, with revisions, for almost 20 years until the state adopted Common Core State Standards.

Before North Carolina adopted Common Core in 2013, the Standard Course of Study was adequate, but not capable of producing results similar to those in Massachusetts. The move to Common Core has not moved North Carolina’s needle either, but that’s not an indictment of Common Core.

The early test scores following Massachusetts’s adoption of its rigorous curriculum standards in the mid 1990s were not stellar. Student scores on annual state tests were disappointing, and the scores revealed a wide achievement gap which persists today. However, as time went on and teachers received more professional development, scores started to move. Now Massachusetts is a top performer despite its adoption of Common Core.

North Carolina doesn’t need to be Massachusetts to get similar results. In fact, making North Carolina a carbon copy of Massachusetts would most likely be a tremendous failure. However, much of what Massachusetts did to get to where it is would benefit North Carolina.

Massachusetts invested in its teacher pipeline, its school buildings, its school supplies, and its students. It spent an average $15,100 per pupil in 2014-2015 compared to North Carolina’s $8,620. Its teacher salaries are well above national average. These investments, which have been criticized over the years, are paying off.

If North Carolina’s lawmakers and educational policymakers truly want to be “the best,” then they should follow the lead of the best.

It’s time to invest in educators by inspiring young people to become teachers and by providing an adequate salary structure which rewards expertise instead of outcomes.

North Carolina needs to adopt rigorous academic standards which have evidence of developing successful student knowledge and abilities, and keep those standards for more than just a few years. In fact, it would be best to evolve the Common Core standards as a whole into a revised Standard Course of Study instead of adopting new standards in piecemeal.

Finally, the state needs to ensure it continues to improve equity across racial and economic boundaries so that every child is receiving the same world-class education as their peers across the country and the world.

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