U.S. Students Fare Poorly in International Math Comparison

By Sean Cavanagh & Erik W. Robelen — December 07, 2004 5 min read
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In their most recent lackluster showing on the world stage, students in the United States scored below average in mathematics literacy and problem-solving in an international comparison of the academic skills of teenagers in developed nations.

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, evaluates the academic competencies of 15-year-olds in a select group of largely industrialized countries and a much smaller group of developing nations. It was first launched three years ago, when the test included some mathematics but focused primarily on reading literacy.

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See the accompanying table,

International Scores

The scores of U.S. students during that first round of testing were comparable with those in other countries, but the performance on this round, conducted during 2003, was markedly poorer.

In mathematics literacy, which measured students’ ability to make judgments about space and shape, change and relationships, quantity, and mathematical uncertainties, the U.S. score was 483, below the average score of 500 for industrialized nations. The United States ranked 24th out of 29 nations in that category.

The problem-solving abilities of Americans were no better. The U.S. students earned an average combined score of 477, below the international average among industrialized countries of 500, also resulting in a ranking of 24th out of 29 nations. PISA officials do not give a top score on those sections of the test, but the international average for the highest-percentile scores among industrialized nations were 660 for math literacy and 655 for problem-solving.

A report on the 2003 PISA results is available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

“This data tells us we’re not as competitive as we need to be on the ability of our 15-year-old students,” Eugene W. Hickok, the deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, said at a Dec. 6 press conference here announcing the results.

Finland ranked at the top of industrialized nations in mathematics literacy, with a score of 544, followed by South Korea, the Netherlands, and Japan. South Korea, Finland, Japan, and New Zealand were at the top of the list in problem-solving.

TIMSS Coming

Over the past decade, a number of international measurements and analyses of student academic ability, most notably the Trends in International Mathematics Study, or TIMSS, have shown the United States with relatively unimpressive results compared with other countries’. Those results have been especially poor among socioeconomically disadvantaged students in the United States.

At a time when many U.S. educators and policymakers are consumed with the task of improving the academic performance of schools and districts, that issue is likely to be thrust into a worldwide context in the coming weeks. As international leaders scrutinize PISA scores, the latest TIMSS results are scheduled to be released Dec. 14.

PISA is conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an intergovermental research and policy organization based in Paris that focuses on education, trade, and other social and economic issues. Each PISA test measures one subject area in depth. Unlike some tests, PISA seeks to assess skills that students have acquired both in and outside of school, and their ability to apply them in “real-world contexts,” according to officials at the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. government’s primary clearinghouse for education data, which administers PISA in the United States.

The PISA test is a two-hour assessment students take with paper and pencil. Each participating nation seeks a representative sample of 15-year-olds. In the United States, 262 schools and 5,456 public and private school students were randomly selected for participation. The results are divided to show the performance of industrialized nations in the OECD and that of developing countries that don’t belong to the organization.

The U.S. scores show a relatively strong relationship between the socioeconomic status of test-takers and students’ performance on PISA. Hispanic and black children in the United States scored lower on average than the overall average for industrialized countries, while white students scored above the country-by-country average.

Those gaps along racial and ethnic lines are “very disturbing,” said Mr. Hickok, who argued that the data lent new urgency to the need to improve student performance among minority youths. In 2002, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, a sweeping reauthorization of the main federal law in K-12 education, which calls for measurements of the academic performance of specific racial and other subgroups of students.

Earlier this year, President Bush vowed to push academic reforms at the high school level, noted Mr. Hickok, an effort that would address the needs highlighted in the PISA study, the deputy secretary said. The president has proposed a series of tests in reading and mathematics for 9th, 10th, and 11th graders, which go beyond the current federal testing mandates.

The United States also had greater percentages of students scoring at the lowest levels of proficiency in those two subjects than the international average, and a smaller percentage of top performers, the PISA study found. In addition, the highest-achieving U.S. students in mathematics literacy and problem-solving were outperformed by their top-performing international counterparts. Those numbers contrast with the test in 2000, when the United States had a relatively strong percentage of students in the top tier of reading literacy.

Because PISA focused primarily on reading literacy in 2000, there are few means of comparison available between this year’s test and the first exam, U.S. officials said. In two subcategories—space and shape, and change and relationships—where that comparison is possible, the United States was outperformed by about two-thirds of other industrialized countries in both 2000 and 2003.

Divided Responsibility

Barry McGaw, the director of education for the OECD, said the U.S. results could in some ways be traced to the decentralized nature of the nation’s educational system, with divided responsibilities among federal, state, and local education officials.

Speaking to Finland’s strong showing, he suggested that education officials in that country had put a strong emphasis on teacher training, and that, overall, teaching is a prestigious occupation. “It is more competitive to get into a teacher-trainer course in Finland than to get into [medical] school,” Mr. McGaw said. “They’re attracting many people, … and they’re training them well.”

But the OECD official also suggested that the U.S. effort to raise student performance through the No Child Left Behind Act—particularly for minority students—was a far-reaching one, even on an international scale.

“You must worry about the performance levels of … different subgroups,” Mr. McGaw said. “The intention of No Child Left Behind is more explicit than in any other OECD country.”


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