The eagerly awaited results of the Program for International Student Assessment contained few surprises. Once again, Japan ranked near the top of the charts, finishing second in science and fifth in math among 72 countries or regions. The United States fell to the bottom half, as math scores dropped 11 points, the biggest decrease in the subject since 2009, while scores in reading and science remained flat.

PISA is widely considered the most valid instrument for measuring student achievement because it places heavy emphasis on the application of knowledge rather than its mere possession. It is given every three years to a representative sample of 15-year-old students from around the world in math, science and reading. The rankings are viewed as evidence of the success or failure of each nation’s curriculum and instruction, and are carefully analyzed.

Math continues to be the single subject that most divides the performance of students in Japan and the U.S. For reasons still unclear, math has always been the most difficult for American students. Nearly a third of American 15-year-olds fail to meet the lowest level of ability in this subject. With that appalling record, it’s no wonder Asian countries, including Japan, Singapore, South Korea as well as regions of China, have consistently beaten the U.S.

Experts differ in their explanations, but they increasingly point to the way math is taught in high-ranking countries. Fewer topics are covered and in far greater depth than in the U.S. Moreover, teachers in Japan rely on jugyokenkyu (class study). The process involves teaching in front of a live classroom composed of students, other teachers and at least one university observer. Finally, teachers in Japan teach 600 or fewer hours than American teachers each school year. That gives them time to collaborate.

Adding further fuel to the fire is the debate over whether local control of education, the hallmark of American education, is responsible. When each state is allowed to set its own standards, it’s not surprising that outcomes vary dramatically. As a result, the Common Core standards were adopted by 44 states and the District of Columbia in the hope of bringing uniformity and improving U.S. performance on international tests. It’s too soon to fairly evaluate the effects, but sharp push back from parents and from some teachers calls into question the future of Common Core.

Yet despite Japan’s impressive rankings in math and science, its students ironically express little interest in pursuing a career in the two fields. A survey conducted years ago by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement found that Japanese students ranked near the bottom, raising the question of whether it’s possible to teach a subject well and yet teach students to hate the subject in the process. It was that possibility that led for a time to a relaxed curriculum that encouraged ikiruchikara (zest for living).

PISA and other tests of international competition will continue to draw attention to the strengths and weaknesses of educational systems around the world. But whether rankings are the right basis for concern is questionable. As Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the former minister of education for Singapore, explained in an interview in Newsweek in January 2006: American students test much worse than Singapore students but seem to do better in life and in the real world.

If he is right, then the obsession with rankings on international tests is counterproductive. There is an exam meritocracy and a talent meritocracy. That’s an important distinction given short shrift in both Japan and the U.S.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

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