The scores are in from the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, which, every three years, tests 15-year-olds from the world's most advanced countries. For the United States, the report card is dismal. The U.S. ranking has fallen to 17th in reading, 21st in science, and 26th in math. Florida, one of America's diverse mega-states, competed separately in the PISA exam, and scored below the U.S. average.
In the academic Olympics, the American superpower is a mediocrity.
Ranked one through seven in test scores in reading, science and math were Shanghai-China, Singapore, Hong Kong-China, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau-China, Japan. Also well ahead of the United States is Vietnam.
By and large, Western Europe has moved out in front of us and our close competitors are the Slovak Republic and Russian Federation.
Fifteen-year-olds in two ex-Soviet republics, Estonia and Latvia, also posted grades in math and science superior to those of America's young.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls the PISA test scores a "brutal truth" that "must serve as a wake-up call" for the country. Excuse me, but how many wake-up calls do we need?
In October 1957, we got our first when the brutalitarian and backward superpower built by Josef Stalin beat America into space. Two months later, our answer to Sputnik, a three-pound satellite, was to be launched by a Vanguard rocket from Cape Canaveral, to get us back in the race. It got four feet off the ground, when the rocket exploded.
Egg all over our face, we were rescued from national humiliation by the Redstone Arsenal rocket crew of Wernher von Braun who built the V-2s that had rained down on London. Von Braun put an 80-pound Explorer into orbit, and we were back in the game. While the first manned space flight was made by Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, America, under Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, took command and put an American on the moon in July 1969.
Meanwhile, the country was on fire over the issue of education. In LBJ's Great Society legislation in 1965 came the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which poured enormous amounts into our pubic schools. In 1983, came "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative For Educational Reform," the report of President Ronald Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education. Conclusion: America's schools, even then, thirty years ago, were failing the nation.
Under George W. Bush and Barack Obama, we got another surge in spending with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
How can a lack of money explain our declining test scores when America continues to spend more per capita on education than almost any other country? Yet, the more we spend, the lower the test scores we get back in global competition?
Some insist the persistence of poverty in an affluent America is the cause of these declining test scores. Yet, have we not fought a 50-year war on poverty since LBJ's Great Society? And not only have countless trillions of dollars been spent, the poor in America receive benefits of which the world's poor could only dream. America's poor receive free food, free health care and free education for their children from Head Start to K-12. The poor get subsidized housing and subsidized incomes. They are exempt from federal income taxes. State programs and private charities pick up where the feds leave off.
Yet, if poverty explains the dismal performance of America's students, why are they being lapped by Vietnamese 15-year-olds? Do the Vietnamese have a higher per capita income than we? Is there less poverty and more emphasis on education in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City than New York City and Washington, D.C.?
Is home environment behind the disparity in test scores? Forty percent of American children are born out of wedlock, but for Hispanics it is 53 percent and for African-Americans 73 percent.
Looking again at those PISA test scores, other than East Asia — China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Vietnam — hardly any other nation of Southeast or South Asia, the Arab or Muslim world, Africa or Latin America, is in the top 40 in academic performance. And, in these test scores from a diverse world, we can see mirrored the academic performance within our own diverse nation.
Just as East Asians and Europeans excel in the PISA tests, so, too, do Americans of East Asian and European descent dominate test scores and excel in educational achievement, while our Hispanic and African-American students trail. At top universities like Berkeley, Stanford and in the Ivy League, too, Asian and white Americans are overrepresented in the student bodies.
Yet, Hispanic and African-Americans are more than 30 percent of the U.S. population and 35 percent of those in our public schools. Increasingly, these minorities will represent the nation in international academic competitions.
Where, then, are the grounds for optimism that we can turn this around? And if we cannot, ought we not accept the inevitable?
(Syndicated columnist Pat Buchanan has been a senior advisor to three presidents, twice a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and the presidential nominee of the Reform Party in 2000. He won the New Hampshire Republican Primary in 1996.)