Wisconsin, United States Students Lag Behind Global Educational Leaders

Wisconsin is better-than-average when it comes to standardized testing in America. If you expand that basis worldwide, the Badger State’s closest comparisons are countries like France, the Netherlands, and Poland.

A new study from Harvard University details the standing of the world’s students thanks to comparisons between the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and America’s National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. These data allowed researchers to not only make comparisons between the United States and other developed countries, but to compare individual states to innovative leaders like Japan, Switzerland, and Sweden.

The results reinforced the idea that America is at risk of falling behind as other nations continue to improve. The country finished in the middle of the pack when it came to reading proficiency, placing 32nd out of 65 eligible countries/entities. This ranked the U.S. behind countries like Slovakia, Hungary, the United Kingdom, and Portugal, but in front of places like Italy, Spain, Greece, and Russia.

America’s performance in mathematics was stronger. The country placed 17th out of 65 participants. Though the U.S. narrowly trailed nations like Germany, Norway, and Iceland, it also outperformed places like Poland, Sweden, and Liechtenstein.

Wisconsin’s above-average performance helped keep the state’s students in the top half of all eligible countries, but concerns about the Badger State’s overall rank persist.

Wisconsin rated 13th in the country in 12th grade math proficiency for the class of 2011. In reading, the state’s rank fell to 19th. 33.2 percent of the state’s students rated at “Proficient” or better when it came to literacy standards. This was two percent better than the national average, but trailed America’s leading state, Massachusetts, by nearly 10 full points.

Ten countries participating in the PISA significantly outperformed Wisconsin in reading, including Finland, Singapore, and Australia. The state’s peers were places like Germany, Iceland, Poland, Liechtenstein, and Sweden.

Following national trends, the state’s outlook in mathematics was more promising. 37 percent of students were proficient in math skills, besting the national average by nearly five percent but trailing Massachusetts by over 13 points. The state’s global counterparts included Poland, Sweden, France, and Hungary.

Interestingly, the state’s white students did not perform as strongly as Wisconsin’s overall results. The Harvard study broke down results by race and found that the Badger State’s scores regressed, even falling below the national average in reading. Wisconsin fell to 17th in math scores, just .7 of a percent higher than the national average for white students. This rank was 22nd in reading, a full 2.5 percent below the U.S. standard.

While these students outperformed the Wisconsin average, they were caught by other American states with stronger records. Wisconsin’s ranking in the top half of U.S. education had often been off-handedly been dismissed as a partial result of a large population of high-performing upper-class white students. This evidence suggests that this theory may not hold water.

The study, authored by renowned education policy researchers Paul Peterson, Eric Hanushek, Ludger Woessman, and Carlos Lastra-Anadon, suggests that the United States’ educational product trails its reputation as a world power. Countries like China, Japan, and Finland are significantly outperforming America’s students. Even in states like Wisconsin, where test scores are above the national average, there’s a large gap between the best countries in the world and the average American student.

Other countries are outperforming both America and Wisconsin. Some of these are the usual suspects, but others like Canada, New Zealand, and the Netherlands may be a bit more surprising. Their emergence has kept the U.S. from the top, and unless there’s a revival amongst American educational outcomes, it’s likely that the country will continue to fall deeper into the pack.