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CONVENTIONAL WISDOM UNDER ATTACK: New Report Finds Poor Math Performance at All Grade Levels When Compared to Other Countries

"The conventional wisdom is that U.S. students perform above average in grades four and eight, and then decline sharply in high school," says Steven Leinwand

For the last few years, it has been an accepted fact that, when compared internationally, American students perform pretty well at the fourth-grade level, about average in eighth grade, but drop to near the bottom in high school. However, a new report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR), Reassessing U.S. International Mathematics Performance: New Findings from the 2003 TIMSS and PISA, found that the math performance of U.S. students is relatively consistent when judged against the other countries who participate in all three international tests. Unfortunately, the bad news is that American students perform consistently poorly.

“The conventional wisdom is that U.S. students perform above average in grades four and eight, and then decline sharply in high school,” says Steven Leinwand, principal research analyst at AIR and one of the report’s authors. “But this study proves the conventional wisdom is dead wrong. We believe the narrower focus of this study more accurately reflects the state of education in the United States in relation to a common set of industrialized nations because we are comparing apples to apples.”

As the report notes, a total of 24 countries participated in TIMSS at the fourth-grade level, 45 countries participated in TIMSS at the eighth-grade level, and 40 countries administered PISA to their 15-year-olds. “Notably, many higher-performing European countries that participated in PISA and contributed to the lower U.S. rankings were absent from the TIMSS results in which U.S. performance ranked above average,” the report reads.

When compared to the 11 other countries that participated in all three tests, the performance of American students is quite consistent, with fourth-grade students placing 8th among the 11 countries, eight-grade students placing 9th, and 15-year-old students placing 9th, compared to 11th, 15th, and 27th in previous comparisons, as the chart from the AIR press release illustrates.

AIR Report
Previous Analyses
Country Common Set of 12 Countries
Full set of 24 Full set of 45 Full set of 40
TIMSS Grade 4
TIMSS Grade 8
PISA Age 15
Grade 4
Grade 8
Age 15
Hong Kong 1 1 1 2 3 1
Japan 2 2 3 3 5 6
Belgium 3 3 4 5 6 8
Netherlands 4 4 2 6 7 4
Latvia 5 6 9 7 11 27
Hungary 7 5 8 10 9 25
Russia 6 6 11 8 11 29
Australia 10 8 5 15 14 11
United States 8 9 9 11 15 27
New Zealand 11 10 6 16 20 12
Norway 12 12 7 20 27 22
Italy 9 11 12 14 22 31

Source: Mullis, Martin, Gonzalez, and Chrostowski, 2004; OECD, 2004

The report concludes that a country’s initial fourth-grade international performance is a good predictor of where that country will end up ranking internationally for 15-year-olds. Additionally, the report found that the United States and Italy are the only two countries in which boys consistently outperform girls on all three assessments. It also noted that a disproportionately high percentage of fourth-grade teachers in the United States have no mathematics specialization and that a high percentage of American eighth-grade math teachers lack a mathematics degree.

The AIR press release and a link to the full report are available at

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