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Earlier this week, newly released international test data showed how students in the United States stack up against dozens of other countries. Reactions to the results ranged from bad to middling.

But how you see the PISA results – the acronym stands for Program for International Assessment – rests largely on whether you compare the United States to itself or other countries.

The New York Times started on a dark note: U.S. scores have been “stagnant” for nearly two decades and the achievement gap is widening, the story noted.

The Times called the U.S. results “disappointing” – which is no doubt an accurate description when looking at the country’s flat-line performance over time.

But reading scores in the United States, when compared to other countries, are not so dismal.

Only four countries – which are part of a group of comparable nations known as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development – clearly outscored the U.S. in reading, as Chalkbeat reported. The U.S. outscored 21 countries and scored similarly to 10 others.

Ireland, Finland, Canada and Estonia (yep!) were the top performers.

In science, U.S. results were also above average, though less so than in reading and literacy. Science scores in the U.S., unlike reading and math, have also risen significantly since 2006.

But there is broad consensus in math: The U.S. is performing well below average and has been for quite some time. Only six countries performed clearly worse.

“Math is clearly our worst subject,” said Patrick Rodriguez, who oversees U.S. participation in PISA for the U.S. Department of Education.

The results released Tuesday reflect 2018 PISA scores. The test is administered to demographically representative samples of 15-year-old students in countries around the globe.

In other countries, older students especially are gaining knowledge in math at a much faster clip than U.S. students, Rodriguez told me.

Perhaps the grimmest reality of the newest PISA results is that the persistent achievement gap between rich and poor students has not budged since 2000. This is despite years of reforms and initiatives like No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Common Core standards, as the Times pointed out.

What does all this tell us about San Diego Unified School District?

The PISA does not list the results of individual schools – only 162 in the country took part – so we can’t know if any in San Diego even took the test. Much coverage of the PISA scores, however, has also pointed to the recent lackluster results of the nation’s report card, or National Assessment of Educational Progress.

San Diego Unified did outperform most other school districts across the country and also showed a growth rate higher than other districts, as the Union-Tribune reported.

But this comes with two caveats.

Even though on average the district outperforms others, the district is still plagued by wide discrepancies in achievement. Nine traditional public schools are on the state’s list of worst-performing schools.

And then there’s this: Even though San Diego Unified is performing above the rest, its results still aren’t great. Just 42 percent of fourth graders were proficient in math on the nation’s report card. (That’s two points higher than the national average.)

That means 58 percent of fourth graders in San Diego Unified – one of the best and brightest districts in the country – are not proficient in a subject in which the U.S. is already lagging far behind.

What We’re Writing

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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