A report this week that American students are lagging behind their top international peers in math, reading and science should give pause to those who argue that the nation's school reform efforts are going too far and too fast. In fact, they suggest just the opposite: The, at best, middling scores of American 15-year-olds not only challenge the notion of American "exceptionalism," they also threaten over time to erode the educational foundations of the world's largest economy and its global political and military influence.

The Program for International Student Assessment, which measures academic achievement in 65 of the world's wealthiest countries, found that students in the U.S. were outpaced by their peers elsewhere in all three subjects tested. Students in 29 countries or educational systems scored higher in math, while those in 22 countries did better in science, and 19 countries did better in reading. The PISA exam put students from Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea at the top of its rankings, while several countries comparable to the U.S., including Ireland and Poland, pulled ahead for the first time.

Meanwhile, American students did only about as well on the test as they did the last time it was administered, in 2009. Optimists might take that to mean that the U.S. is at least holding its own in the global educational competition, but the reality is that America is standing still while other countries forge ahead. And in a rapidly evolving global marketplace, standing still year after year is the same as falling behind.

A number of reasons have been offered for the mediocre performance of U.S. students compared to their counterparts in other developed countries. Among them are the effects of high levels of poverty, a large immigrant population for whom English is not their first language, and the fact that many Asian and European societies are more culturally and ethnically homogeneous than the American melting pot. But when you look closely at such arguments, none of them are entirely convincing as explanations for America's educational mediocrity. Several of the countries ahead of us, like Poland, also have large immigrant populations, while others, such as Vietnam, have deep pockets of concentrated poverty. Yet they seem far better than the U.S. at training young people to achieve at high levels.

This should be a "Sputnik moment" for U.S. educators, comparable to the wave of school reforms in America spurred by the Soviet Union's launch of the first artificial satellite in 1957. Then, America's leaders recognized that America's ability to compete in the Cold War era was at risk unless its schools produced the highly skilled workers needed to develop the new technologies of the space age. Today, the U.S. still depends on a skilled work force to retain its preeminence in the global marketplace, but it's headed for trouble if the next generation of American workers don't have the advanced skills the country needs.

One reason students in countries like Finland and Vietnam do better overall is because those countries have school systems that do a much better job of schooling their most difficult to educate youngsters. They assign their best and most experienced teachers to work with students from poor families and give schools extra resources to help make up for the educational experiences and support such youngsters lack at home. As a result, even the most disadvantaged children in those societies, by our standards, can excel. Moreover, their national PISA scores aren't skewed downward by large numbers of underachieving students trapped in failing schools that don't prepare them for college or a career.

By contrast, even top-ranked U.S. school systems such as Maryland's often fail to address the needs of the most disadvantaged students. As the Sun's Liz Bowie reported, Maryland excludes a higher proportion of special education and English-as–a-second language students from its standardized testing than any other state in the country. That has improved average test scores, but it's also raised questions of whether the state's No. 1 ranking is based on measurements that are artificially skewed toward the state's highest-achieving youngsters while other states' averages are based on a more representative sample of their student populations.

The report contains some bright spots for educators here, among them the fact that the top U.S. students score well against their international peers and that some states, such as Massachusetts, are succeeding in breaking down many of the barriers to achievement for low-income and minority students. Nevertheless income inequality remains one of the biggest factors in educational outcomes and it hurts both rich and poor families. U.S. students from affluent families, for example, still generally fare worse on the PISA exam than students from similar backgrounds elsewhere, even when their scores aren't skewed downward by averaging them with their less affluent peers. This should be a wake-up call that America can neither rest on its laurels nor continue to lead the world in the 21st century unless it finds a way to close that gap and make high quality schools available to all children regardless of race, class or family income.


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