By Daniel Willingham
An "absolute wake up call."
If we've all been asleep up until now, we've really got trouble.
U.S. kids did not shine, but the latest round of results of PISA, formally known as the Program for International Student Achievement, don't look that different than what we've seen in the last decade.
On the PISA, U.S. kids typically score about average relative to kids from other participating countries. They rank in the middle of the pack, around 20th.
What's notable to me is that U.S. fourth graders have usually done better.
Those tests (the TIMSS for science and math, and the PIRLS for reading) are not directly comparable, of course. That said, U.S. fourth graders have typically scored above the mean of participating countries, and typically rank somewhat above the middle of the pack, usually about 10th, noticeably different than 10th graders.
What might cause this decline across grades?
In the early grades we emphasize the skills that are tested at the early grades, but we fail to build knowledge that---although it's not measured early on---will be important later.
In reading, the emphasis is on decoding, and our kids are pretty good decoders.
But by 10th grade, being a good reader no longer means being a good decoder. Most kids are good decoders by this time. Instead, reading tests emphasize comprehension, and comprehension is mostly driven by prior knowledge--knowing a little bit about the subject matter at hand. (I've emphasized the importance of prior knowledge in reading here and here.)
All that time spent on decoding in the early grades, (and time not spent on history, geography, science, music, art, etc.) comes back to haunt kids in 10th grade and beyond.
A parallel phenomenon is happening in math. In the early grades U.S. kids are not very strong on conceptual understanding, but they are pretty good at learning math facts and algorithms.
That's sufficient to produce good test scores in the early grades. Kids can recognize problem types and know which algorithms to apply.
But once you start algebra, the absent conceptual knowledge really starts to hurt you.
So again, what was missing in the very early grades doesn't come home to roost until high school.
The international comparisons show us that we still have work to do in the upper grades. The pattern of performance tells me that the work must begin in early elementary school.
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