Conservative radio host Mark Levin blamed undocumented immigrants for the United States' poor ranking in a global education survey of high school students, claiming that "one of the reasons" for the mediocre showing on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is because "a lot of these children only speak Spanish and a certain percentage of them are illiterate in Spanish because they're poor when they come over the border."
PISA, which is administered every three years by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), found that among the 34 OECD countries, the United States performed below average in math at 26th and average in reading (17th) and science (21st). PISA found that even among the U.S.' strongest performers, students in Massachusetts, the top student performers in math, 15-year-olds in Shanghai, showed that they had the equivalent of more than two years of formal schooling over their American counterparts.
But immigration is not to blame for the U.S.' second-rate results. Indeed, according to the results, immigrant students in the United States performed better than the average of member countries in math.
As the Christian Science Monitor further reported:
More than 510,000 15-year-old students in 65 countries and other education programs took part in the 2012 PISA test. Students from Shanghai-China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea scored highest in all three subjects. Switzerland and the Netherlands also ranked near the top.
Set against that backdrop, the US performance in mathematics drew the most handwringing by far. Among 65 nations and jurisdictions where the PISA test was administered, 29 countries and provinces outperformed the US in math in 2012, compared with 23 in 2009, the last time the test was given.
The list of those racing past the US included not only perennially strong competitors like Singapore and South Korea, but also Latvia, Australia, and Vietnam when compared with test results from three years earlier.
In reading, US scores were flat. But students in 19 countries scored higher than the US in 2012, compared with just nine countries three years before. Steady gains by Poland and Germany leapfrogged them past the US along with Estonia, Ireland, and Chinese Taipei (Taiwan).
In science, meanwhile, some 22 countries' educational systems beat out the US average, compared with 18 in 2009.
Overall, the US had a "flat line" performance as other nations surged, said Secretary Duncan.
Discussing the PISA results on his radio show, Levin attributed the mediocre results to undocumented children:
After complaining about the Supreme Court decision that guaranteed all students, regardless of immigration status, a public education in the United States, and lamenting House Speaker John Boehner's (R-OH) recent move on immigration reform, Levin stated: "I mean, it just shows you how a culture deteriorates -- and not because it's Latino or whatever, it's because it's legal versus illegal. You either have a rule of law or you don't. And apparently we don't."
He went on to claim that "one of the reasons" for the poor showing among U.S. students is undocumented students:
LEVIN: But a lot of these children only speak Spanish and a certain percentage of them are illiterate in Spanish because they're poor when they come over the border. In many respects, they're uneducated. So they come in, they pour into many of our school systems into our public schools. And so reading, and science and mathematics -- isn't it at least conceivable that's one of the reasons why our numbers have dropped and continue to drop? I think the answer is obviously yes. But nobody will say it except me, and these groups certainly won't report on it.
In fact, Levin's contention that undocumented immigrants can be blamed for the U.S.' stagnant PISA results is bogus. According to the PISA results, immigrant students in the United States performed better than the OECD average in math:
After examining the equally poor 2009 PISA results of U.S. students, Lori Taylor, an education expert and associate professor at Texas A&M University's Bush School of Government and Public Service, stated: "The U.S.'s mediocre performance is also not attributable to a high fraction of immigrant students. Although students from an immigrant background generally performed less well on PISA exams, excluding immigrants raises the average U.S. reading score only slightly (to 506 from 500)." She went on to cite poverty as a bigger indicator of educational performance:
"Socio-economic disadvantage translates more directly into poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries," according to the PISA report. In general, PISA results suggest that economically disadvantaged students who attend schools where most of their peers are also economically disadvantaged tend to perform poorly, while economically disadvantaged students who attend schools where most of their peers are economically advantaged tend to perform better."
An OECD study on the 2009 performance of American students also found that immigration could not explain why 18 percent of those students did not attain a basic level of proficiency in reading:
Eighteen per cent of 15-year-olds in the United States do not reach the PISA baseline level 2 of reading proficiency, a percentage that is around the OECD average and that has remained unchanged since 2000. Excluding students with an immigrant background reduces the percentage of poorly performing students slightly to 16%.
The study further noted:
While it might be tempting to attribute a performance lag of countries to the challenges that immigrant inflows pose to the education system, the reading performance of students in the United States without an immigrant background is, at 506 score points, only marginally higher than the performance of all students. In fact, the reading performance gap between students with and without an immigrant background is smaller in the United States than the average gap across OECD countries, and particularly after the socio-economic background of students is accounted for.
The same holds if the language spoken at home, instead of the immigrant background of the student, is used for comparing student groups. among the countries that took part in the latest PISA assessment, Switzerland, Canada and new Zealand have larger immigrant intakes than the united States, but score significantly better.
While experts are conflicted about what exactly accounts for the lower scores among U.S. teenagers, many point to poverty and income inequality as the biggest factors. As National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel explained:
The PISA test can still tell us many things, says NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, but the results are certainly not proof that we need to accelerate voucher programs, continue ineffective high-stakes testing, and scapegoat teachers. U.S. students won't rank higher on PISA, Van Roekel explains, until the nation properly addresses poverty and its effect on students.
"Our students from well-to-do families have consistently done well on the PISA assessments. For students who live in poverty, however, it's a different story. Socioeconomic factors influence students' performance in the United States more than they do in all but few of the other PISA countries," says Van Roekel.
Levin's claim that immigrant children speak only Spanish is also belied by evidence. Research shows that immigrants today learn English more quickly than European immigrants. In fact, as the Pew Research Center found, "92 percent of the Latino second generation (children of immigrants) speak English 'very well,' and by the third generation nearly one hundred percent of Latinos are either English dominant or fully bilingual."