Published Online: December 7, 2010
Updated: March 23, 2012

U.S. Rises to International Average in Science

American students’ science performance climbed to the average for leading industrialized nations, while their mathematics performance remained below the average, despite gains in that subject from the last round of testing in 2006, based on results released today from a prominent international assessment.

In reading, meanwhile, U.S. performance was roughly flat compared with earlier testing cycles, with 15-year-olds staying at about the average for the 34 nations that are part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In a conference call with reporters, Stuart Keraschsky, the deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, said the results from the 2009 administration of the Program for International Student Assessment offer some reason for encouragement, at least in science and math.

“The needle doesn’t move very far very fast in education,” he said. Still, he suggested that the changes seen in achievement in those two subjects “were moving in the right direction.”

But at an education forum in Washington this morning, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bluntly expressed his concerns with the latest outcome.

“The PISA results, to be brutally honest, show that a host of developed nations are outeducating us,” he said. “Americans need to wake up to this educational reality.”

With regard to the gains in science, he said: “I don’t think that’s much to celebrate. ... Being average in science is a mantle of mediocrity.”

PISA compares the performance of U.S. 15-year-olds in reading, math, and science literacy against their peers internationally. It seeks to assess both what students have learned and how well they apply that knowledge in real-world contexts. The results are scored on a scale of 1 to 1,000.

Special Focus on Reading

In science, the U.S. score of 502 increased from 489 in 2006. The new results were not measurably different from the OECD average of 501, according to a highlights report issued by the NCES, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

The United States ranked in the same statistical category in science as 12 other nations, including Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Portugal. Meanwhile, 12 OECD nations had measurably higher scores.

At the top of the pack in science, based on the latest results, were Finland, Japan, and South Korea. (The NCES report says that only the 2006 test and the current one for science are comparable.)

Each PISA cycle assesses one of the three subjects in depth, and this time around that subject was reading. The 2009 results include a combined reading-literacy scale, as well as three subscales that attempt to gauge students’ ability to access and retrieve information, integrate and interpret it, and reflect and evaluate it.

Overall, U.S. 15-year-olds had an average reading score of 500, which the NCES said was not measurably different from the OECD average of 493. Only six countries had statistically higher average scores, while the United States was in the same category as 14 others.

American students scored 504 in 2000 and 495 in 2003. Results for 2006 were invalidated because of major errors in the printing of the test given in the United States. ("Printing Errors Invalidate U.S. Reading Scores on PISA," Nov. 28, 2007.)

The top three OECD performers in reading this time around were South Korea, Finland, and Canada.

U.S. students showed the best relative performance in answering questions that judged students’ ability to reflect and evaluate information. On that measure, the United States ranked seventh out of the 34 OECD nations. The weakest area for U.S. achievement was in accessing and retrieving information, for which students tied for 19th place with France.

Gender Differences

Meanwhile, in math, the U.S. average score was 487, statistically lower than the OECD average of 496. In all, 17 OECD nations had statistically higher scores.

The U.S. score was statistically higher than the average for American test-takers of 474 in 2006, but not measurably different from 2003, the initial year for the same math assessment.

The highest-scoring OECD countries in math were South Korea, Finland, and Switzerland.

The data released today indicate some gender differences in achievement. For example, U.S. males scored higher on average than females in both science and math, while females on average showed stronger results in reading.

PISA was first implemented in 2000. The U.S. sample for the latest results includes both public and private schools, with 165 schools and 5,233 students participating in all. The 2009 data also include results for many other non-OECD nations and educational systems, including Albania, Qatar, and Shanghai, China.

Former Gov. Bob Wise of West Virginia, who heads the Washington-based Alliance for Excellent Education, said in a statement that while the United States has a long way to go, he saw some reasons for encouragement.

“The positive news is that the United States has stopped dropping in the international rankings, and there has even been some improvement in the mean scores in all three subjects since the last assessment, with significant gains in science,” he said.

Mr. Wise also drew attention to data regarding the performance of low-income students.

“Most positively, approximately 25 percent of [U.S.] low-income students tested in the top quartile, showing that with the right support, every child can learn at a high level.”

For his part, Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, drew attention to the strong performance by Shanghai, which participated for the first time in the 2009 administration of PISA.

“Shanghai’s 15-year-olds topped those in every other jurisdiction in all three subjects,” he wrote on Flypaper, the Fordham Institute’s blog. “The 2009 testing cycle marked the first time that youngsters in China-proper participated. To be sure, it was only Shanghai, the country’s flagship city in so many ways, a single megalopolis on which Beijing has lavished much investment and attention, many favorable policies, and even (for China) a relatively high degree of freedom.”

But Mr. Finn, a former education official in the Reagan administration, said “Americans—and the rest of the world—would make a big mistake to suppose for one second that this Shanghai result is some sort of aberration or unique case.”

Vol. 30, Issue 15

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