PISA World Rankings Show the Importance of STEM Education in Wisconsin and Across the Globe

December 13, 2013

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Recent results from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) are in, and they don’t paint a rosy picture for students in the United States. When America’s 15-year olds are falling behind peers in countries like Latvia and Slovenia, it’s time to take action.

Those PISA results showed that America ranked behind the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) average for developed countries when it comes to high school mathematics and science in 2012. In fact, the U.S.’s results when it came to math were a full 13 points below the OECD average, placing 35th out of the 64 countries that were surveyed.

The nation’s reading results were only slightly better, barely outpacing the worldwide standard.

These results continued a trend of limited growth in reading and math for American students. In 2003, the average U.S. 15-year old student notched a score of 483 in PISA math. Now, that score is down to 481. In reading, American scores have fallen from 504 to 498 in the past dozen years.

That’s a disappointing trend that Americans – and Wisconsinites – can’t stand for. While recent reforms aimed at literacy in early ages will slowly boost the state’s reading profile, there needs to be an impetus placed on improving science and math scores, especially as students prepare to enter a workforce where technology reins supreme. Fortunately, the Badger State has the tools in place to fix that.

The most encouraging returns from 2012’s PISA results were the country’s continued improvement when it comes to science. While U.S. students still lagged behind the global average, the country’s score has risen from 489 to 497 between 2006 and 2012. That increase has fallen in line with the recent rise of STEM-based education.

STEM – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – learning is aimed at molding students who are ready to work in the developing fields that will drive future economies. These schools challenge students to rise up and apply their knowledge to fix the problems they’ll face in their careers.

This focus has spread across the country. Project Lead the Way has helped implement STEM curricula in nearly 5,000 schools throughout America. Both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have endorsed their work. Their support piggybacks national movements like President George W. Bush’s American Competitiveness Initiative, which called for an expansion of STEM progress back in 2006. However, the growth of STEM academies in Wisconsin has been measured.

Currently, only 18 of Wisconsin’s 239 charter schools list STEM principles as either their primary or secondary basis of curriculum. The PISA results, which suggest that American students are falling behind in the subjects that will drive global economies, call for more of these institutions. Fortunately, that blueprint is in place. Schools like the Waukesha STEM Academy and Wauwatosa STEM (which scored a stellar 94.8 on the 2013 Wisconsin School Report Card) are examples that educational stakeholders in Wisconsin can replicate.

STEM education gives America’s students the step up they need to catch up to – and pass – their global peers when it comes to science and math. Investing in these schools is investing in Wisconsin’s future. By creating a cache of students that are fluent in the language of math, science, and technological development, Wisconsin can help lead the United States back to the top of the global rankings.