When Good Enough isn't Good Enough: what's happening in the US education system

Caroline Chibanda, science teacher, The Gateway Academy

The US system is typically divided into three levels or schools: elementary (Grades K–5), middle (Grades 6–8) and high (Grades 9–12). Some districts vary this, occasionally including Grade 6 in the elementary level and offering a junior high school for Grade 7 and Grade 8, for example. Some districts may separate Kindergarten from the rest of the elementary school. Generally, however, the three divisions are acknowledged in the different configurations offered by districts.

What do the PISA performance indicators tell us

In 1967, on the first international comparison of educational achievement in maths, the United States ranked 11 out of 12 nations. Students in Germany, England, France and Japan all scored ahead of students in the U.S. The only country behind the U.S. was Sweden. No one was surprised. A Washington Post news article explained that U.S. teachers weren’t as well trained in maths pedagogy and that American society didn’t value mathematical achievement as much as other countries.

After the release of the latest 2018 rankings by the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, earlier in December 2019, there was considerable hand wringing and consternation but the result wasn’t much different. The U.S. still ranks behind the same group of countries, with the exceptions of Israel, which has slipped below, and Sweden, which has risen above the U.S. In maths, the U.S. ranks 36th out of the 79 countries and regions that participate in the test.

It’s worth noting that the U.S. Department of Education considers the U.S. ranking to be 30th, not 36th. That’s because some of the numerically higher scores are so close that the National Center for Education Statistics calculates them to be statistically equivalent. And not all of the 79 geographic entities are countries. In some cases, autonomous regions, such as Hong Kong, participate separately from their countries. The Organisation for International Co-operation and Development (OECD), which runs PISA, also allows partial participation for some nations. The top rank in the world is held by a group of four provinces within China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang).

But however you count it, U.S. maths performance is below the international average.

“What surprises me is how stable U.S. performance is,” said Tom Loveless, an education expert who was formerly at the Brookings Institution. “The scores have always been mediocre.”

The U.S. performs relatively better in reading, average instead of below average. It ranks 13th out of the 79 countries and regions, according to the 2018 PISA scores in reading. As with maths, U.S. performance hasn’t changed much since the first PISA tests in 2000. Today’s scores in reading and maths aren’t statistically different from when PISA started testing the subjects in the early 2000’s.

The latest PISA scores reinforce the results from the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) test of maths and reading, which U.S. fourth and eighth graders take every two years. Those results, released in October 2019, also found that U.S. achievement hasn’t progressed over the past decade and, for low-performing students, was the same as 30 years ago. The international PISA test is taken by older students, 15-year-olds, every three years. The majority of U.S. test takers are at the beginning of their high school sophomore year.

Amid the long-term stagnation, there is an important change to note. Inequality is growing. Peggy Carr, associate commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) points out that both exams are showing a widening achievement gap between high- and low-performing students. One in five American 15-year-olds, 19 percent, scored so low on the PISA test that they had difficulty with basic aspects of reading, such as identifying the main ideas in a text of moderate length.

Related: U.S. now ranks near the bottom among 35 industrialized nations in maths

But the inequality story is a nuanced one. Part of the inequality is between schools with students at wealthier schools posting much higher test scores than students at schools with large numbers of disadvantaged students. But the vast majority of educational inequality in America is inside each school, according to the PISA test score report. Statisticians mathematically teased out inequality between schools versus within each school and found that, in the U.S, only 20 percent of the variation in student performance is between schools. The remaining 80 percent is inside each school.

Imagine five schools, each with 10 students. Students in the first school come from the poorest families and students in the fifth school come from the wealthiest. The other three schools lie between the two extremes. If you calculate the average test score for the 10 students in each school, you would see that the average test score for each rises with wealth. In the U.S., 93 points separate the average score in the poorest schools from the wealthiest. That’s about three grade levels — the difference between 10th grade achievement and 7th grade achievement.

But what’s interesting is that the difference in test scores among the top performing and lowest performing students in each school is much greater.

This is a sharp contrast with other schools’ systems around the world. In Germany, for example, there is much less variation in each school. Student test scores are clustered closely together under each roof. But there are greater differences between schools with the least advantaged schools scoring much lower than the wealthiest schools. In this case, no one in the least advantaged schools is approaching the scores of the most advantaged schools.

Why the U.S. has so much inequality inside each school is up for debate. Even if the family incomes are similar in each school, American schools might have more cultural diversity with some families emphasizing the importance education more than others. In other cases, there might be a wide range of incomes in a large high school and student performance mirrors that wide range.

The value of Education in the USA

The value of education can mean different things. To some people, value may mean how much they can earn. Others may see the value of education as the amount of job opportunities they will have after graduation. For you, value could mean something different, such as the social benefits you may get from having an education. Read on to explore some perspectives on education's value.

The Monetary Value of Education in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in 2016, the trend from 2000-2016 was higher median earnings for those who had completed higher education than for those with less education ( The NCES reported a median salary of almost $50,000 for those with a bachelor's degree and an approximately $25,400 median salary for those without a high school diploma or equivalent. Bachelor's degree holders earned 57% more than those with a high school diploma. With a master's degree, earnings rose to about $64,100.

Important Facts about the Value of Education

In the statistics below are samples of some of the most in demand majors by degree. Earning a degree in one of these fields can be valuable.

Most employable bachelor's degree

Finance, accounting, computer science, mechanical engineering, business administration

Most employable master's degree

Finance, computer science, accounting, MBA, mechanical engineering

Most employable doctoral degree

Chemical engineering, electrical engineering, computer engineering, mechanical engineering, physics

Job Opportunities in Relation to Education

Education may also affect the job opportunities open to you, since some jobs may have specific education requirements imposed by regulations or common industry practice. To earn licensure in a particular field, you may have to meet other requirements as mandated by law.

In 2016, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the total number of job openings available in the U.S. based upon the amount of education required as of 2016 ( More than 37.2 million jobs were available for those with less than a high school education with a median salary of $24,430. Approximately 61.5 million jobs required at least a high school diploma or equivalent and they earned a median salary of $37,010. About 3.6 million jobs were available requiring associate's degrees earning a median of $53,700. Bachelor's degrees were required for about 33.4 million jobs and they earned a median salary of $74,290. Around 2.7 million jobs typically call for a master's degree, and jobs requiring a doctoral or professional degree numbered a little over 4.2 million jobs. They earn median salaries of $69,450 and $105,700 respectively.

Other Benefits of Education

Education doesn't just provide you with the chance to earn a higher salary or find a job more easily. It can also provide social benefits. According to The Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP), higher education correlates with lower crime rates, higher voter participation and an increase in volunteer work ( The IHEP also stated that having a higher education could increase life expectancy, lead to better health and increase your overall quality of life.

For families moving to the US, the education system can appear bewildering. Take a look at everything from the K-12 programme to SATs, ACTs and Advanced Placement.

Common Core standardised tests

The US federal government has attempted to standardise the curriculum across schools through the introduction of the Common Core – an education initiative which outlines what students should know in maths and English by the end of each Grade level.

However, standardised testing in schools has become a controversial issue in the US, with a study from the Council of the Great City Schools suggesting that students would sit around 112 standardised tests between Kindergarten and 12th grade.

K-12 education system

Unlike other countries’ end-of-school examination systems, such as the A Level in the UK, the French Baccalauréat or the globally recognised International Baccalaureate Diploma, US students leave school with a collection of assessments that demonstrate their readiness for college or work.

K-12 stands for ‘from Kindergarten to 12th grade’. This equates roughly to a school starting age of around five through to Grade 12 at around the age of 18. The system is broken down into three stages: elementary school (Grades K–5), middle school (Grades 6–8) and high school (Grades 9–12).

Testing takes place throughout the year, to ensure that pupils are on track. However, with the layering of tests issued by mandates from Congress, the US Department of Education, and state and local governments, the system is becoming confusing and unwieldy.

Although some schools issue a high-school diploma on satisfactory completion of Grade 12, this is not a standardised qualification and the requirements are set by individual states. At the end of high school, pupils are also provided with a Grade Point Average (GPA) – an average of their results in all four high school Grades – which can help to determine their next step into work or college.

SATs and ACTs

However, colleges and universities in the US are likely to require more information about prospective students than the GPA and a high-school diploma can offer. This is why many students opt to take either the SAT (formerly known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test) or the ACT (the American College Test), both of which are nationally recognised tests taken at high-school level.

“Nearly all highly ranked US universities require applicants to submit scores from one of the US admission tests – either the SAT or the ACT,” says Jon Tabbert, head of US admissions at Dukes Education consultancy and Jon Tabbert Associates.

“A strong test score is crucial to a successful application, and because these exams differ greatly from those on traditional UK or international syllabi, they can be an extremely challenging element of the admissions process.”

The ACT is another standardised test for college admission in the US. Like the SAT, it assesses high-school students’ general academic aptitude and a student’s ability to complete higher-education-level work. The tests are multiple-choice and cover four areas: English, maths, reading and science. They also include an optional writing test, which measures a student’s skill in planning and writing a short essay.

International students can sit the ACT and the SAT from outside the US in order to gain entry into US higher-education institutions.

Advanced Placement

The Advanced Placement (AP) is another programme of learning and assessment designed to help US higher-education institutions to assess students for entry into college and university. It is developed and administered by the College Board, the organisation responsible for the SAT tests.

The AP is specifically designed to be closely linked to the first year of college in the US, so students typically take the programme to demonstrate a commitment to a discipline or subject that they hope to continue studying at college level.

According to the Fulbright Commission, the AP is more rigorous and in-depth than the standard high-school courses offered in US schools and compares favourably with A Levels and the International Baccalaureate, both of which are considered to be the gold-standard qualification for university preparation.

While the AP is not necessary for entry into US higher-education institutions, students are able, by undertaking the programme, to demonstrate a commitment to the subject they hope to take further. And, especially for the most competitive of universities, successful completion of the AP could offer admissions officers further insight into a student’s academic abilities.

The early phase of the Common Core State Standards gave a boost to well-off students, but didn’t provide significant help to disadvantaged students’ scores on a national test, according to research released recently.

The offer

The commitment to a wide and varied curriculum that includes societal issues as well as academic subjects is important in the United States. The commitment to make college available to nearly every student entering high school is another value the United States holds high. There is no doubt that doing education this way is more difficult than educating students with a stratified narrow curriculum

Good but Not Perfect

Graduation rates in certain areas are unacceptable and the achievement gap between the best schools and the worst is atrocious. There is no doubt that the United States education system needs to improve.

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