Mixed messages on whether U.S. students will be well-prepared for the workforce

BY Kyla Calvert  April 1, 2014 at 12:22 PM EDT
According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, American students performed just above average on a new, international test of problem-solving skills given to 15-year-olds. And an Annie E. Casey Foundation report cautions that there are wide racial disparities in educational opportunity across the country. Photo by Getty Images

According to the Programme for International Student Assessment, American students performed just above average on a new, international test of problem-solving skills given to 15-year-olds. And an Annie E. Casey Foundation report cautions that there are wide racial disparities in educational opportunity across the country. Photo by Getty Images

According to the first report from the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, American students performed just above average on a new, international test of problem-solving skills given to 15-year-olds. Students in Singapore and Korea had the highest average scores, while U.S. students scored similarly to those in Germany, France, Italy, Ireland, England and the Netherlands.

The test was taken along with the traditional math, science and reading exams that are part of PISA. Students in 60 countries take the exams every three years and Education Secretary Arne Duncan called U.S. students’ middling results on the traditional exams a sign of the country’s “educational stagnation,” according to Politico. Far fewer students took the first-ever problem solving test, just 85,000 in 44 countries compared to more than 19 million in those same countries who took the math, science and reading tests. Just 1,273 American students took the exam.

Analysts from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the group that administers PISA, said U.S. students performed better than expected on the problem solving exams, given their scores on the other subject tests, which some see as a silver lining.

The test gave students open-ended interactive problems where they had to explore material without direction to discover solutions to problems. Performing well on tasks like these is becoming increasingly important, according to the OECD, as the number of jobs where workers have to problem-solve independently is growing in the developed world.

While the PISA results show U.S. students having slightly above-average problem solving skills, another report out Tuesday cautions that there are wide racial disparities in educational opportunity across the country.

Each year the Annie E. Casey Foundation takes a snapshot of children’s well-being in every state. Now, the nonprofit has released its first report that measures educational access and attainment by race. The group developed a 1,000-point scale combing a dozen indicators that span early life. The indicators included the percentage of babies born at normal birth weight, family income, fourth and eighth grade reading score, teen pregnancy and high school graduation rates and the percentage achieving an associate’s degree or higher before age 30. Across the country, Asian children fare best on the index, they have a score of 776. White children were the next best off at 704. Then scores fell off dramatically, Latinos scored 404, American Indians were at 387 and African-Americans had the lowest opportunity score, 345. The scoring was based on data from 2012.

“This first-time index shows that many in our next generation, especially kids of color, are off track in many issue areas and in nearly every region of the country,” Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, said in a written statement released with the report.

Persistent educational disparities also threaten the country’s economic future. By 2018 children of color will be the majority in the United States, according to census projections cited in the report. And by 2030 people of color will make up a majority of the country’s workforce.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.