The United States’ academic standing in newly released international exams has remained middling at best, prompting heated debate about what is to blame and how to fix the problem.

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, is administered every three years to 15-year-old students by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a group of 34 industrialized nations formed during the Cold War. Another 31 nations took part in the exam, representing a sample of about 510,000 students.

Among the 34 OECD countries, the U.S. continued to perform below average in math, ranking 26th. But its ranking of 17th in reading and 21st in science placed the U.S. at about the OECD average. The test administrator noted that those rankings aren’t exact because of margins of error in the sampling data. But regardless, the scores were not “measurably different from average scores in previous PISA assessment years” dating back to the start of the decade, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, which analyzes the data for a U.S. audience.

That prompted Education Secretary Arne Duncan to call the performance “a picture of educational stagnation.” To improve U.S. competitiveness, he advocated investing in preschool, boosting academic standards and recruiting talented teachers—all initiatives of the Obama administration’s reform agenda. Its tacit support of new educational expectations called the Common Core State Standards, which are intended to raise the level of critical thinking that PISA strives for, has drawn criticism from both the left and the right.  

Others seized upon the results to argue the reforms of the past decade have failed to show results. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest unions in the country, argued years of “hyper-testing students, sanctioning teachers and closing schools has failed to improve the quality of American public education.”

But others criticized attempts to shape the results to serve a particular reform agenda and downplayed the significance of the test. Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute and Martin Camoy of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education attacked Duncan for holding a day-long event with policy experts whom they argue share the administration’s thinking.

“Those with different interpretations of international test scores will see the reports only after the headlines have become history,” they wrote in a blog post.

Both authored a study last year pointing out that PISA doesn’t provide data broken down by socio-economic groups until well after the initial release, and the level of inequality in the U.S. helps explain its mediocre scores. When controlling for income, the U.S. ranks far better, they argued. The OECD, in turn, acknowledges differences in background have a “significant impact.”  

Others note that nations such as Vietnam that are far poorer than the U.S. still outperform it in international benchmarks. The Alliance for Excellent Education, an advocacy group that emphasizes improving education for disadvantaged students, argues PISA asks the typical American student to do more than they have to do in standardized tests at the state level. PISA includes multiple choice but also writing responses that require students to apply a piece of information in situations that might be different from the original context. Questions are organized around a single passage or real-world problem and accelerate in terms of the level of thought required. The OECD argues this approach "reflects the fact that modern societies reward individuals not for what they know, but for what they can do with what they know."

“PISA is about problem solving,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and a former West Virginia governor. “It’s about taking knowledge and then applying it to a real-world problem as opposed to multiple-choice, measuring what you know.”

The latest PISA results also underscored differences in achievement among states. Florida, Massachusetts and Connecticut all increased sample sizes so they could be included in international comparisons among the countries. Massachusetts and Connecticut posted scores on all exams that were generally better than the OECD average. But Florida, a center of school reforms that value greater testing and accountability through data, finished below the average in math and science.

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How Countries Compare in Math, Reading and Science

In the 2012 Programme for International Assessment (PISA), OECD countries recorded average scores of 494 for math, 496 for reading and 501 for science. The following table shows mean 2012 PISA scores for each country, along with annualized change.

Source: OECD