U.S. Students in the Middle of the Pack on International Tests

By Mary Ann Zehr — August 20, 2009 2 min read
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Students in the United States show little distinction compared with their peers in most other countries in reading, mathematics, or science at any grade level or age, according to a special analysis released this week by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education. According to one international test, American students are near the bottom of the pack in math.

The report caught the attention of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said in a statement, “Today’s report is another wake-up call that our students are treading the waters of academic achievement while other countries’ students are swimming faster and farther.” He also used the report as an opportunity to push common national standards.

On the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study 2007, both 4th and 8th graders scored above the scale average in math, and scores for U.S. students increased since 1995. Fourth graders in eight of the 35 other countries taking the test scored higher on average than 4th graders in the United States. Eighth graders in five of the 47 other participating countries performed better than U.S. students.

Question: Would you like to take a guess on which countries had students that outscored American students in both grades 4 and 8?

Answer: Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan.

On the Program for International Student Assessment 2006, given to 15-year-olds, U.S. students were below the average scale score in math. That put U.S. students in the bottom quarter of performance for participating countries. They’ve been in that spot since 2003.

The results were similar for science. On the TIMSS 2007, U.S. 4th and 8th graders scored above the average scale score in science. Students in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Japan outshone the U.S. students. On the PISA 2006 in science, U.S. 15-year-olds scored below the average.

The IES researchers examined the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study 2006 to compare reading performance of U.S. students with their counterparts in the rest of the world. On that test, U.S. 4th graders’ reading-literacy score was higher than the average scale score. At the same time, students in 10 of the 45 participating countries or provinces (three Canadian provinces participated) did better on the test than did students from the United States.

My colleague Sean Cavanagh has written extensively in EdWeek about the differences between the various international tests and how experts advise caution in interpreting them. The goal of TIMSS, for example, is to assess students’ knowledge in school-based curriculum while PISA measures students’ skills and their ability to apply them.

See the Washington Examiner‘s take on the report here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.