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Primary and Secondary Education in the United States

Listed author(s):
  • Peter Tulip


  • Gregory Wurzburg


The average educational attainment of US students is weak by international comparison. For example, mean results of PISA test scores are below the OECD average. This is despite substantial resources devoted to the schooling system. One partial explanation for this is that academic standards, curriculum and examinations are not sufficiently challenging in most US states. In 2001, Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) to raise achievement levels, especially of certain groups that perform badly. The Act requires states to establish clear content standards as to what students should know, to regularly assess performance and to set thresholds for adequate yearly progress; it also requires schools where students are failing to meet such thresholds to improve or close, while enhancing options for parents of children in such schools to place their children elsewhere. The law appears to be well conceived, addressing key problems in a sensible manner. Preliminary indications are consistent with it raising school performance and closing achievement gaps. The NCLB legislation should therefore be reauthorised. Moreover, the NCLB framework of standards, assessment and accountability should be extended through upper secondary education. That said, there are a number of areas in which improvements could be made. Though the federal government cannot set standards, it could strengthen incentives for more states to make their standards more challenging. As well, the federal government should help states and districts to better test student achievement and assess progress. L'enseignement primaire et secondaire aux États-Unis Le niveau d’instruction moyen des élèves aux États-Unis est faible par rapport à ce qu’il est dans d’autres pays. Les résultats moyens au test du PISA, par exemple, sont inférieurs à la moyenne de l’OCDE en dépit des ressources considérables consacrées au système scolaire. L’une des explications possibles est que les États pour la plupart ne se montrent pas assez ambitieux, qu’il s’agisse du niveau d’acquis exigé, des programmes d’enseignement ou des examens. En 2001, le Congrès a voté la loi baptisée No Child Left Behind (NCLB) afin de relever le niveau des acquis, en particulier parmi certains groupes de population dont les performances laissent à désirer. Cette loi exige des États qu’ils définissent clairement les connaissances que les élèves doivent acquérir, qu’ils évaluent les performances à intervalles réguliers et qu’ils fixent de façon appropriée des objectifs de progression annuelle ; elle exige par ailleurs des établissements scolaires dont les élèves n’atteignent pas ces objectifs, qu’ils s’améliorent ou ferment, et parallèlement elle donne aux parents dont les enfants fréquentent ces établissements plus de possibilités pour les scolariser ailleurs. Cette loi est, semble-t-il, bien conçue et traite raisonnablement des problèmes essentiels. D’après les premiers constats, elle a permis d’améliorer les performances des établissements scolaires et d’atténuer les écarts de résultats. Cette législation devrait donc être reconduite. De plus, ses dispositions concernant le niveau d’exigence, l’évaluation et l’obligation de rendre compte devraient être appliquées au deuxième cycle de l’enseignement secondaire. Cela dit, des améliorations pourraient être apportées dans un certain nombre de domaines. S’il est vrai que le gouvernement fédéral ne peut fixer de normes en la matière, il pourrait renforcer les mesures incitatives afin qu’un plus grand nombre d’États revoient à la hausse leur niveau d'exigence. De même, il pourrait aider les États et les districts scolaires à améliorer l’évaluation des acquis des élèves et des progrès accomplis.

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Paper provided by OECD Publishing in its series OECD Economics Department Working Papers with number 585.

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Date of creation: 06 Dec 2007
Handle: RePEc:oec:ecoaaa:585-en
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