Report examines research on the gender gap in reading and student engagement

The Brown Center on Education Policy in the US has released a new report that asks How Well Are American Students Learning? The report describes the results of three educational research studies.

The first study examines the gender gap in reading. Historically, boys in the US score lower than girls on standardised reading tests and the gap widens in middle and high school. This trend is seen around the world, even in countries that scored high on the PISA reading subtests. The authors debunk several popular explanations for the gap, most notably the theory that females are biologically better at reading. The authors also note that the reading gap disappears in adulthood and that after age 35, men score significantly higher on reading measures than women. The authors comment that the effects of life cycle experiences on reading proficiency need to be examined.

The second study looks at the effects of intrinsic motivation on maths in 15-year-olds. Surprisingly, results showed a negative correlation between engagement level and maths achievement (higher engagement levels yielded lower test scores). Fifteen-year-olds in the US scored at average engagement levels. Countries who scored higher in PISA scores (Japan, Finland, South Korea) reported lower engagement levels for mathematics.

The third study discusses the early effects of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) – a set of standards that details what children age 5 to 18 should know in maths and literacy. The findings showed small, non-significant effects in fourth grade (Year 5) reading and eighth grade (Year 9) maths in states with strong CCSS implementation.

Source: How Well Are American Students Learning? (2015), Brown Centre on Education Policy

PISA and homework

An OECD report on data from the PISA survey looked at homework among 15-year-olds and asked whether homework perpetuates inequalities in education.

According to the report, in 2012 students in the 38 countries covered by the survey spent an average of an hour less on their weekly homework than their predecessors did in 2002 (OECD average 5.9 hours). Socio-economically advantaged students and those who attended socio-economically advantaged schools tended to spend more time doing homework than other students. There was an association between the amount of mathematics homework supplied and the performance of both students and schools, but other factors had a greater effect on overall school performance.

The report concludes that homework provides an opportunity for learning but could reinforce socio-economic differences. Schools and teachers might be able to mitigate the problem by, for example, providing quiet places for study for students with no such facility at home.

Source: Does homework perpetuate inequities in education? (2014) PISA in Focus

US pupils lagging behind

A new report, sponsored by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance, explores the “educational shortcomings” of US pupils compared to their international counterparts. In particular, the authors wanted to know whether the picture is skewed by poor performance among children from disadvantaged backgrounds. They conclude that it is not just disadvantaged children who are lagging behind; it’s advantaged children as well.

The analysis used state-by-state data from the 2011 eighth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests, as well as international data from PISA 2012. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is a survey conducted every three years by the OECD. It aims to compare the performance of schools and education systems worldwide by assessing 15/16 year olds in three main subjects – mathematics, science, and reading – with a special focus on one subject per survey. PISA 2012 focused on mathematics.

The authors found that, when viewed from a global perspective, US schools seem to do as badly teaching those from advantaged families as they do teaching pupils from disadvantaged families. Overall, the US proficiency rate in maths (35%) places the country 27th among the 34 OECD countries that participated in PISA. The ranking was actually slightly lower for pupils from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (20th). It is important to note that there are significant variations across states.

Although the focus of the report is on maths, the authors show similar results for proficiency in science and literacy. They conclude that the US has two achievement gaps to be bridged – the well-known gap between its advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, but also the distance between itself and its peers abroad. This research suggests that the latter is not a socioeconomic issue.

The report has also been published in Education Next.

Source: Not Just the Problems of Other People’s Children: U.S. Student Performance in Global Perspective (2014), Harvard’s Program on Education Policy.

English teenagers do well at problem solving…

A new PISA study has been published, responding to the question of whether today’s 15-year-olds are acquiring the problem-solving skills needed in the 21st century. The study presents results from the PISA 2012 assessment of problem solving, which was administered on computer to about 85,000 teenagers in 44 countries and economies.

Singapore, Korea, and Japan top the performance table. However, England, which is often cited as “underperforming” in international tests, is 11th, with pupils performing significantly better in problem solving, on average, than pupils in other countries who show similar performance in mathematics, reading, and science.

In general boys outperformed girls in problem solving, and the study also found that the impact of socio-economic status on problem-solving performance is weaker than it is on performance in mathematics, reading, or science.

Source: PISA 2012 Results: Creative Problem Solving: Students’ skills in tackling real-life problems (Volume V) (2014), OECD.

Education Media Centre starts work

The launch of the PISA survey also marked the start of a new initiative in the UK – the Education Media Centre (EMC).

The EMC aims to improve the public and media understanding of education research and evidence. It does this by making it easy for the media to access useful academic and research expertise on the education stories they are covering in newspapers, on radio, TV, and the internet.

The ultimate goal is to raise awareness and knowledge of this research amongst the public. The EMC is a project of the Coalition for Evidence-based Education, an alliance of researchers, policy makers and practitioners who are interested in improving the way research evidence is used, and exchanged, across the sector.

PISA highlights the attainment gap within countries

The results of the latest PISA survey have been published. PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) is a survey conducted every three years by the OECD. It aims to compare the performance of schools and education systems worldwide by assessing 15/16 year olds in three main subjects – mathematics, science, and reading – with a special focus on one subject per survey. PISA 2012 was the fifth survey, with a special focus on mathematics. Around 510,000 pupils sat a two-hour paper-based test, with some taking an additional computer-based test. All the pupils, and their head teachers, also completed questionnaires about their background.

While much of the media coverage has emphasised the differences between countries, the 2012 survey shows that the difference in mathematics performance within countries is greater. Over 300 points – the equivalent of more than seven years of schooling – often separates the highest and the lowest performers in a country. Socio-economic differences were also important – across OECD countries, a more socio-economically advantaged pupil scores 78 points higher in mathematics – the equivalent of nearly two years of schooling – than a less-advantaged pupil.

The UK average mathematics score was 494 points (the same as the OECD average), around the average in terms of performance differences in mathematics across socio-economic groups (82 point difference between socio-economically advantaged and disadvantaged students), and average in terms of the strength of the relationship between mathematics performance and socio-economic status.

A number of suggestions are put forward in the Results in Focus:

  • Target low performance, regardless of pupils’ socio-economic status, either by targeting low-performing schools or low-performing pupils within schools, depending on the extent to which low performance is concentrated by school;
  • Target disadvantaged children through additional instructional resources or economic assistance;
  • Apply more universal policies to raise standards for all pupils (eg, altering the content and pace of the curriculum, improving teaching techniques, changing the age of entry into school); and
  • Include marginalised pupils in mainstream schools and classrooms.