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ACHIEVEMENT GROWTH: New Report Labels U.S. Learning Gains “Middling” Compared to Rest of the World

“While twenty-four countries trail the U.S. rate of improvement, another twenty-four countries appear to be improving at a faster rate.”

Learning gains in the United States between 1995 and 2009 compared to the rest of the world have been “middling, not stellar,” according to a new report by the Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) at Harvard University. Based on one series of tests given in the United States (National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP), and three series of tests administered by international organizations (Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the report provides estimates of learning gains for the United States and forty-eight other countries. The report, Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance, also examines changes in student performance in forty-one states within the United States.

“While twenty-four countries trail the U.S. rate of improvement, another twenty-four countries appear to be improving at a faster rate,” the report finds. “Nor is U.S. progress sufficiently rapid to allow it to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world.”

According to the report, test-score performance in the United States has improved annually at a rate of about 1.6 percent of a standard deviation, or about 22 percent of a standard deviation over the fourteen years within the scope of the report. As shown in the graph below, this rate of improvement places the United States in the middle of the pack, behind Latvia, Chile, and Brazil, all of which improved at an annual rate of 4 percent of a standard deviation. The United States also trailed other high-performing countries, such as Singapore, Finland, and Korea.


Achievement growth pic1


At the state level, progress was far from uniform across the United States, the report finds. Maryland, with an average annual gain of 3.3 percent of a standard deviation placed first among states, followed by Florida and Delaware at 3.2 percent, as shown in the graph below.1


Achievement growth pic2


According to the report, states that were furthest behind in 1992 have generally made the most gains. The same does not hold true at the international level, where nations with rapid gains can be identified among countries that had high initial scores and countries that had low ones, the report finds. For example, Latvia, Chile, and Brazil, were relatively low-ranking in 1995. Conversely, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom were already high-performing nations in 1995 and have continued to advance relatively rapidly.

The complete report is available at

Because of non-participation in the early NAEP assessments, Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont, and Washington could not be included in the report.

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