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What Motivates 15-Year-old Americans to Do Well on Tests?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
Meet The Team >

Every three years, high school students from over sixty countries take a series of standardized tests designed to assess their proficiency in core subject areas such as mathematics, reading, and science. The test is part of a larger effort, called the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which helps education policymakers compare their students and education systems with those in other countries around the world.

In order to level the playing field and make apples to apples comparisons, the PISA effort, which began in the year 2000, tests 15-year-olds only. The focus shifts each year, as well. Reading literacy was the major testing domain for the 2018 PISA, along with two minor domains, mathematics and science literacy.

The results for the 2018 PISA, released in December 2019, showed 15-year-olds in the U.S. testing at about the same level as when the test debuted in 2000.

Heads up: as a nation, we don’t do as well on the PISA as we might like or expect.

We never have.

Education policy experts advise Americans not to read too much into the results, but nevertheless, humility – when based on accurate knowledge – can be a good thing, so we’ll share the results and you can decide what you think about them.

PISA 2018: The Results

We’ll give you the top five countries in each domain tested this year, then we’ll tell you where our 15-year-olds placed.

That’s right: our kids not in the top five in any of the domains this year.

Here’s who is:

Reading Literacy

  1. China
  2. Singapore
  3. Macau
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Estonia

U.S. students placed 14th


  1. China
  2. Singapore
  3. Macau
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Taipei

U.S. students placed 30th

Science Literacy

  1. China
  2. Singapore
  3. Macau
  4. Estonia
  5. Japan

U.S. students placed 16th

Your eyes do not deceive you: our 15-year-olds didn’t crack the top ten in any of the domains tested this year. We’ve been consistently mediocre, among developed nations, since the PISA test began. Education experts in the U.S. are used to less-than-stellar performances on the PISA, and offer many explanations as to why our students consistently score behind countries like Canada, all the Scandinavian nations, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand.

One thing they point to is motivation.

According to this story in the Washington Post, students from other countries – particularly Asia – are far more motivated to do well on the PISA than kids in the U.S.

The authors of that story point to an experiment designed to find out exactly what motivates our students to perform their best on tests like these.

When you find out, you’ll probably feel disappointed – but we doubt you’ll be surprised.

How to Get 15-Year-Old Psyched About Taking a Test

Offer them money.

That’s right.

A group of researchers administered a mathematics test similar to the PISA to two groups of students: one from the U.S. and one from Shanghai. They offered both sets of students a dollar-per-question incentive.

Guess whose scores improved more when offered financial remuneration for correct answers?

Ours. Our kids’ scores.

So what, exactly, are we teaching our children?

We’ve discussed this subject before in our articles What’s in a Grade, Empathy or Achievement – What We’re Teaching our Kids, and Trends in Education: Social and Emotional Learning. That second article strikes to the core of our point here: in a Harvard study, researchers found that students in the United States value achievement – i.e. high grades and elite sports performance – over personal qualities such as empathy, fairness, and kindness.

And one possible interpretation of the dollar-per-question study is that our kids value money over achievement.

We point this out in the hopes that, as policymakers and educators scramble to make changes designed to drive our PISA scores up – as they always do after the results are published – we don’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. Yes, we can improve our scores in every subject area, without exception. Yes, if we commit, we can even crack the top five – but we’d still be playing catch-up if we do.

There’s another take on this, though.

Maybe that’s not what we’re supposed to be doing.

Maybe – just maybe – we shouldn’t focus our efforts on leading the world in standardized test scores. It’s possible we’re supposed to become a different type of world leader: maybe we’re supposed to lead the world in teaching social and emotional skills. Perhaps we should prioritize empathy over achievement. And if we do, perhaps we’ll reap rewards and experience benefits we never thought possible.

Then again, we may be way off the mark.

But then again, we may be on to something big.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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