How well do American students perform on the PISA?


Also, what does the public get told? Do smartphones make students dumber?

Back on December 19, Derek Thompson discussed that persistent allegation in an essay for The Atlantic.

He seems to think the answer is yes. That won't be the focus of what we're discussing here.

Instead, we want to show you something Thompson included in his report as a bit of a throw-away comment. Quite literally, we're talking about a parenthetical remark. Very early in his report, Thompson offered this:

THOMPSON (12/19/23): The Program for International Student Assessment, conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development in almost 80 countries every three years, tests 15-year-olds in math, reading, and science. It is the world’s most famous measure of student ability. Most years, when the test makes contact with American news media, it provides instant ammunition for critics of America’s school system, who point to PISA scores and ask something like “Why are we getting crushed by Finland in reading?” or “Why are we getting smoked by Korea in math?”

The latest PISA report has a different message. Yes, Americans scored lower in math than in any other year in the history of the test, which began in 2003. (Once again, the test recorded America’s persistent inequalities; Black and Hispanic students, on average, scored below Asian and white students, who typically do about as well as their peers around the world.) But COVID learning loss was even worse elsewhere, creating what the authors of the PISA report called “an unprecedented drop in performance” globally that was “nearly three-times as large as any prior change.”

Thompson proceeded from there, discussing his preferred topic. We were struck by part of what he'd offered as a parenthetical, throw-away comment. 

In part, this is what Thompson had said:

Asian and white students [in this country] typically do about as well as their peers around the world.

By "Asian," Thompson meant Asian-American. In his remark, he was saying this:

In American public schools, Asian-American and white kids do about as well on the PISA as their peers around the world.

That was offered as a throw-way comment. Quite literally, the statement appeared within parentheses as Thompson moved ahead to a different topic. 

Along the way, Thompson provided a link to a Twitter / X post in support of what he'd said. "America overperforms on the PISA," this Twitter poster said.

In part, that Twitter post had come in response to the release of scores from the most recent administration of the PISA. The PISA is normally administered every three years. The most recent testing occurred in 2022, after a one-year delay due to complications from Covid.

The results from the 2022 testing were released on December 5. Headlines in the Washington Post and the New York Times adopted the standard approach to any such topic, with stress on the gloom and the doom.

Here are the headlines on the December 5 news reports:

The Washington Post:
Math scores for U.S. students hit all-time low on international exam

The New York Times:
Math Scores Dropped Globally, but the U.S. Still Trails Other Countries

The headline was gloomier in the Post. That said, does some possible upside lurk inside these latest PISA scores? 

We've been reporting on topics like this for the past hundred thousand years. There are few topics which make the role of mandated press corps Storyline quite so clear.

There are certain things the public gets told about PISA scores—about public school test scores in general. There are also facts which the public will never be told, as if by rule of law.

This week, our afternoon reports will show you some of the things the public didn't learn from those reports in the Post and the Times:

"America overperforms on the PISA?"  What in the world could Cremieux, the Twitter poster, possibly have meant by that?

By law, there are certain facts which we the people will never be told about data like these. Only The Shadow knows why that is, and The Shadow has agreed not to tell.

Tomorrow: American scores on reading


  1. Terence Tao, one of the greatest mathematicians in the world, is Asian-Australian-American.

  2. "There are few topics which make the role of mandated press corps Storyline quite so clear."

    Consider the possibility that there may not be a mandated press corps storyline, but that reporters all pick up their info either from each other or from the same sources. Saying that there is a mandated storyline implies several unlikely things: (1) that there is someone manding storylines for the press, (2) that there is a purpose to spreading doom and gloom or some other emotion, (3) that there is some reason why the press would go along with such mandating rather than reporting their own info. Unless Somerby is willing to suggest a mechanism for this supposed mandating of storyline, he really has no business calling it that, especially when he never invests any effort in showing us that more than one reporter is reporting a storyline report.

  3. ""America overperforms on the PISA?" What in the world could Cremieux, the Twitter poster, possibly have meant by that?

    By law, there are certain facts which we the people will never be told about data like these. Only The Shadow knows why that is, and The Shadow has agreed not to tell."

    Apparently Somerby has agreed not to tell either.

  4. It seems to me that those headlines are matters of fact that can be easily verified. Is Somerby saying they are untrue, or is he complaining because the headlines are negative?

  5. When a problem is misdiagnosed, the wrong remedies will be applied, and the problem won't be solved. In the US today, it's almost impermissible to point out that blacks lag whites academically by several years and that whites lag Asians. If we could acknowledge these facts, then an obvious solution would be to encourage blacks to learn and study and live the way Asians do.

    Even if we're not willing to compare ethnic groups, we could reach a useful strategy by looking at highly successful blacks.

    But, in today's world, we're required to blame racism. This wrong diagnosis hurts all Americans. It huts blacks the most IMO because it discourages effective remedies.

    1. How do you propose to make black students not black so that they will no longer bear the brunt of discrimination? How do you propose to make white students more like Asian students, when it is next to impossible to change white family practices and culture into Asian ways?

      David, you do not understand that the reasons why Asian, Hispanic and white and black students perform as they do is because of things that are not easily changed, especially by teachers in schools. Simply "encouraging" black students to be like Asians just isn't going to do any good but has a high likelihood of exacerbating tensions between groups.

      Besides, we do know that eliminating poverty and the things that go with it (poor health care, lack of jobs and housing, food insecurity) does help and yet our society does not have the will to address those problems. Racism is one of the things that perpetuates poverty and the lack of will to reduce poverty. Too many bigots look at that as giving black people handouts. THAT hurts black people by discouraging effective remedies.

    2. Many Asian students have tutors outside their regular school classes. Is David urging that our society supply such tutors to white, black and Hispanic families? I would vote for that.

      How is David suggesting that we address the problem of bilingualism in the early grades among Hispanic students? It becomes an asset later in life, but prevents progress in the early grades. More tutors perhaps?

      Or will David wave his magic wand, proclaim all kids Asian and their obstacles will magically disappear? Does David understand that disadvantaged white kids do as poorly in school as disadvantaged black kids? Thus addressing disadvantages through social programs has the potential to benefit kids of all races, even poor and disadvantaged Asian kids, who do not do as well as their Asian peers but have to endure the stereotypes and inappropriate expectations.

    3. David talks as if all members of a racial or ethnic group perform the same, when there is a bell-shaped curve within each of those groups. This clearly shows that a lot of variability is caused by other factors besides race or ethnicity. The variability within each group is typically greater than the difference between the means of the groups, which is all David and also Somerby ever focus on. Somerby has never mentioned variability or standard deviations here in the many years he has been discussing NAEP and PISA scores. He also never mentions that some PISA topics are not typically part of the US curriculum and standards, which puts the US students at a disadvantage compared to certain other countries and makes it likelier that students in better schools will get higher scores on that test.

      I do not see this as supposed storyline as an urgent journalistic problem. Somerby might be talking about the differences in Biden's school policies and stand on issues affecting schools, compared to Trump's. Or even, how the press has covered the education programs of the two candidates. He has never done that with respect to any candidate, in the entire history of his blog, so I don't expect him to start now, but that would be a much better use of his time than carping at random reporters because he doesn't like what they are saying about PISA (which pretty much means nothing to anyone, even educators).

    4. @4:13 you take it for granted that discrimination makes students worse. On the contrary, it's preferences and affirmative action laws that hold minorities back IMO.

      My father taught me, by his the way he lived, that a Jew had to work harder to succeed. When hard-working Jews were barred from insurance company leadership, Jews built up their own company, AIG, to become the largest insurance company in the US. Other discriminated-against groups, such as Mormons and Asians, learned the same lesson and now outdo whites academically and financially. .

    5. You need to read some books written by black people and find out how discrimination hurts them. None of them are complaining about affirmative action but about white preference and privilege. When a black person works harder and doesn't succeed it is because of unfairness inherent in the system. That unfairness did not affect you or your father because you were white. You seem to start with the assumption that black people do not work harder to succeed. That is incorrect. Mormons are also white, but have the advantage of being a community that discriminates against gentiles to privilege and help members of their own religion. Black people cannot do that to the same extent because they do not inhabit positions of sufficient power to give a hand up to other black people, as Mormons, Jews and Asians do. Why? Because black people have been systematically excluded from occupations and opportunities that would permit them to get a foot in the door, as you had with AIG.

      Discrimination absolutely makes minority students worse. I know of individual cases where outstanding black students were excluded from opportunities (such as the selective high schools in NYC) because they were assumed to be either uninterested or unable to perform well enough to participate. Activist parents can sometimes reverse such admission decision, but not all deserving black students have parents capable of duking it out with school administrators to open doors for their kids. The same thing happens up and down the ladder throughout a black person's life, unless they are fortunate enough to find an advocate.

      With your attitudes, David, your firm should never have let you anywhere near a hiring decision.

    6. @4:20 asks. "Is David urging that our society supply such tutors?" Not at all. In fact, having a group's advancement depend on "society" is the last thing I'd favor Relying on 'society' more or less means relying on politicians. But, politicians have their own goals.

      Number 1 is to get re-elected. So, politicians do not want to help in ways that they won't get credit (and votes) for. So, politicians keep doing things, even at a moment when inaction might be more effective.

      Number 2 is other groups. Teachers are more important to Democrats than blacks. So, Dems oppose school choice, even though chioce might be very good for blacks.

      Black advancement works best when it's in the hands of blacks. That's why the rate of black advancement (by various measures) was quicker before the civil rights act than afterwards.

    7. To cite AIG as an example of Jewish success in the financial services realm is rich. US taxpayers bailed them out for 180 billion dollars in 2008. In 2009 they awarded their executives 160 million dollars in bonuses. As an example of extreme greed and chutzpah, AIG has had no peer. In an equitable world, the company should have ceased to exist in 2008. But DIC considers this a Jewish success story.

    8. So we have it -- David doesn't believe in society helping people. We have nothing to talk about.

    9. unamused -- there is a long history, of which you're unaware. In 1962 Maurice Greenberg was named the successor to the founder of AIG. At that time, AIG was a small, insignificant company. Over a period of decades, AIG grew to become the largest company in America. That's a big achievement. Through much of this period, many of AIG's competitors would not hire Jews as part of management.

      I agree with you that AIG displayed greed and chutzpah. In fact, I worked against them as a consultant in a case that illustrates your point. Nevertheless, AIG was successful.

    10. @7:17 a problem is that what people want to hear is not always what's best for them. People like to be told that their problems are somebody else's fault. However, what's generally more helpful is to tall people that the solutions are in their own hands, although solutions might require uncomfortable changers and sacrifices.

      If we can't talk about politicians helping people, we can still talk about politicians hurting people, either through malice or through unintended consequences. E.g., Jim Crow laws. Or welfare rules discouraging a man in the house have hugely damaged black Americans.

    11. You have no idea what is best for diverse kids. Yes, it is generally good to give anyone a sense of agency, but that doesn't mean you leave them to succeed or fail without any help. No white person ever has to do that except under the most adverse circumstances (abuse, abandonment, neglect) which are considered crimes and result in kids being taken away from their parents, yes even white kids.

      Jim Crow laws were never intended to help black people. But don't you consider it helping people when the city changes a burnt out streetlight or fixes a pothole? There are some things we consider the responsibility of a city for the common good. Schools fall into that category and good schools meet the specific needs of all of their students. They don't ignore the black kids to toughen them up and teach them self-sufficiency. That is child abuse too.

      It has been decades since that archaic rule about having a man in the house. Why are you still talking about it as if it were current? Today the rules are about forcing women with children to work when their kids might benefit more from adult attention.

      The idea that telling a two or three year old that the solutions are in their own hands strikes me as ridiculous bordering on cruel.

    12. I am well aware of the history of AIG and Mo Greenberg. The fact that you should consider a company that put every man, woman and child in the US on the hook for 600 dollars each to bail it out in 2008 "successful" is ridiculous. It exists today only because it was such a massive catastrophe. A complete failure of a company. Likewise, since you position yourself as a historian here, let us know how many CEOs of financial service companies: you know, large banks and brokerage houses, were African American versus Jewish when so many Americans lost massive amounts of equity in the great recession of 2008. You know, the one that started with Lehman Brothers. Because I don't recall any enterprise run by a black CEO involved in tanking the economy in 2008. So, since you are so fixated on the cultural depravity that keeps Blacks mired in poverty, let me suggest that that you exhibit an impressive ability to look the other way at the history of the voracious and destructive greed displayed by "successful" businessmen like Mo Greenberg and others of his ilk. The wealthy get a pass in your world of constantly punching down on the unfortunate, that includes both impoverished whites and blacks, but only the blacks need be focused on by your kind.

    13. Watch out, unamused. Next, David will cap off his screed by calling you antisemitic.

    14. Unamused - AIG was the unfortunate. They were punching UP.

      The giant, 200-year-old insurance company where I started, INA, had no Jewish or non-white or female corporate officers until the 1960’s. That was typical. AIG was a company where a Jew could rise in management. Obviously that was very important.

      AIG’s success also proved that it was good to have Jews n management.

      You are right about AIG’s morals. Nevertheless a highly successful Jewish-led company was important.

    15. I see, AIG was unfortunate when its board awarded 160 million dollars in bonuses to its officers a year after the US taxpayer bailed it out for 180 billion dollars. That is what you call like to call unfortunate. Unfortunate is a term that you purposefully employ to render this massively mismanaged company a passive victim. Their BUSINESS was managing risk. Of course, they did so quite well, in the end, for their upper management. The Titanic's captain didn't have a private lifeboat. I suppose that would have been ok with you as long as he was the first Jewish trans Atlantic ship captain. Your reasoning is preposterous. And to compare your so called plight in the financial services industry to the Black American experience is delplorable. Furthermore, if you needed the crutch of feeling aggrieved to work your hardest, I would not have wanted to be your employer.

    16. I took advantage of the bigotry in other insurance companies by hiring highly effective minorities, like Jess, who a Chinese-American woman, Eric, who is gay, and Marc, who is French-Canadian. I didn't take their ethnicity or sexual preference into account -- only their outstanding competence.

    17. This comment has been removed by the author.

    18. Here is your problem in catapulting Maurice Greenberg to the position of a Jewish Jackie Robinson in the insurance business. The "insignificant" -your words-company that he took over was large enough to have offices in 75 countries. Greenberg's tenure ended when he was summarily given the boot by his board in 2005 after managerial improprieties resulted in consecutive years fines of 126 million and 1.8 billion dollars, and multiple years of inaccurate financial statements required public revision. Hardly the beacon of light that you portray.

  6. Mr Trump will provide free higher education.

    1. "Under the plan I’m announcing today, we will take the billions and billions of dollars that we will collect by taxing, fining, and suing excessively large private university endowments, and we will then use that money to endow a new institution called the American Academy."

      What's wrong with Liberty U?

      Trump isn't proposing to provide free higher ed except to those who attend that special university he will create by stealing money from the other existing colleges.

      Fortunately, there's absolutely no chance he would follow through on this campaign promise, any more than he did with replacing Obamacare or making Mexico pay for his wall. And ask the students who were bilked by Trump University how well that worked out for them.

    2. "Most importantly, the American Academy will compete directly with the existing and very costly four-year university system by granting students degree credentials that the U.S. government and all federal contractors will henceforth recognize."

      A university that focuses on degrees and credentials instead of on educating students is called a "diploma mill."

  7. Kevin looks at PISA:

  8. Kevin looks at plagiarism:

  9. Kevin looks at Donald Trump;

  10. It’s important to disaggregate blacks and Hispanics to show how well our schools are really doing, because those students are just a big drag, and not really part of “us, Bob?