Odilon Dimier/Altopress/Newscom

Odilon Dimier/Altopress/Newscom

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) has just released the findings from its most recent assessment of student academic achievement internationally.

The PISA is administered every three years by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and assesses the student achievement of 15-year-olds in math, science, and reading, placing those results in a global context.

American students continue to underperform other developed nations and, notably, have seen other countries pass them by since the last PISA exams were administered in 2009. Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged the lack of progress as a “picture of educational stagnation.”

Twenty-nine countries statistically outperformed the United States in math (up from 23 in 2009). Among those countries besting the U.S.: Iceland, Vietnam, Slovenia, and Estonia.

Nineteen countries statistically outperformed the U.S. in reading (up from just nine in 2009). “While Americans’ reading scores were flat, 10 education systems have surpassed the United States in the subject since 2009, including Ireland, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Poland, Estonia, the Netherlands, and Germany,” reported Education Week.

And in science, students in 22 countries outperformed U.S. students (up from 19 in 2009). American students scored in the middle of the pack of the OECD average.

The bottom line: U.S. students saw a decline in their standing in all three assessed subjects.

In the PISA’s addendum to the main report, the authors observe that the highest-performing school systems are those that “grant more autonomy over curricula and assessments to individual schools” and that “systems where schools have more autonomy over curricula and assessments tend to perform better overall”:

Since the early 1980s, many school systems have granted individual schools increasing authority to make autonomous decisions on curricula and resource allocation on the premise that individual schools are good judges of their students’ learning needs and of the most effective use of resources.

With the U.S. on the brink of establishing national standards and tests through the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is backed by the Obama Administration, it’s worth considering the OECD’s suggestion that curricular autonomy might play a part in the high performance of some jurisdictions.

It’s also worth noting that the U.S. now spends, on average, more than $12,000 per child per year in our public schools. By the time students reach PISA-taking age, taxpayers have expended more than $120,000 per student. Perhaps we’d see some improvement on our international competitiveness if we considered funding children instead of public school districts and allowing that money to follow children to educational options that meet their unique learning needs.

That’s what we see in the PISA policy Rorschach test. Reject the latest effort to centralize standards and assessments and empower families with educational choice, and we might just see some improvement in our international academic standing in the years to come.