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THE CONDITION OF EDUCATION: American High School Students Struggle to Compete Internationally in Math and Science; Rank is Higher in Reading but Below International Average

“While our younger students are making progress on national assessments and are ahead on some international measures, the same cannot be said at the high school level,” said Mark Schneider

American students’ scores on international math and science tests indicate that they are not keeping pace with other students from around the world, according to a special analysis in the 2006 edition of The Condition of Education, published annually by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). The report, which uses various national and international measures to evaluate the current state of education, finds that U.S. students perform relatively well in math and science in the lower and middle grades but struggle to apply those same skills in real-life applications by the time they reach high school.

“While our younger students are making progress on national assessments and are ahead on some international measures, the same cannot be said at the high school level,” said Mark Schneider, NCES Commissioner. “U.S. students do relatively well in reading literacy when compared to their international peers, but they are outperformed in mathematics and science and our 15-year-old students trail many of our competitors in math and science literacy.”

Based on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), U.S. fourth graders had higher reading literacy scores than the international average, earning higher scores than students in 23 of the 34 other participating countries in 2001. Sweden, the Netherlands, and England were some of the countries whose students scored above U.S. students, while German, Italian, and Canadian students scored about even with U.S. students.

On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in reading, American 15-year-olds did not fare as well but managed to score near the international average. PISA tests students on their ability to apply reading skills to reading materials that they are likely to encounter as young adults, such as government forms, magazines, or books. Although the United States scored near the international average, its overall rank was lower than at the fourth-grade level because countries such as Australia, Ireland, and Japan, which were not tested at the fourth-grade level, scored higher than the United States. In addition, countries such as New Zealand, Iceland, Norway, and France, which scored lower than the United States at the fourth-grade level, moved ahead of the United States at the eighth-grade level.

When compared internationally in math, American fourth-grade students showed no measurable change in their academic performance over previous years, ranking near the middle of the 25 countries tested. At the eighth-grade level, American students also perform in the middle, but they demonstrated improvement since 1995. For example, of the 21 other countries that participated in both the 1995 and 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), U.S. eighth graders were outscored by 12 countries in 1995 but by only 7 countries in 2003. Overall, U.S. eighth-grade students outperformed their peers in 30 countries, on average, in 2003, and were outperformed by 14, including Hong Kong, Japan, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

While these scores are encouraging, the 2003 PISA in math demonstrated that American students struggle when asked to apply their mathematical knowledge to situations they are likely to encounter in everyday life. According to the results, American 15-year-olds had lower average mathematics literacy scores than the international average and lower scores than their peers in 20 of the 28 other participating countries. However, of the 30 countries that scored below the United States on the TIMSS, only 4 participated in PISA. In addition, several European countries, which typically score well, were included as participants, effectively driving the average higher. At the same time, four countries that scored lower than the United States on the TIMSS scored higher than the United States on PISA. In another discouraging finding, the United States had a greater percentage of students at the lowest levels of performance in mathematics literacy than the international average.

Similar to their results in math, U.S. fourth graders showed no measurable change in science performance, while eighth-graders showed some improvement. According to TIMSS, U.S. eighth graders performed above the international average in science and outscored their peers in 32 of the other 44 participating countries in 2003. Once again, however, U.S. 15-year-olds performed below the international average when they were asked to apply their science knowledge to everyday applications.

“This report mirrors recent NAEP results that show our high school students are losing ground when it comes to academic achievement, graduating without the skills they need for the workforce or college,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She praised No Child Left Behind (NCLB) for “remarkable gains” at the early grades but stressed that high school performance has remained static. She used the release of the report to promote the president’s plan to extend NCLB into high schools and the American Competitiveness Initiative, which would “work to increase academic rigor and improve math and science education. . . .”

In addition to comparing international test scores, the analysis also compares the U.S. student enrollment and high school graduation rate to those of other countries around the world. It reports that the percentage of the population aged 5–14 enrolled in school was 90% or higher in most developed countries, including the United States. However, the percentage of the U.S. population aged 15–19 enrolled in school was 75%, which is comparable to or below most other industrialized countries’ percentages. In addition, the U.S. graduation rate of 73% is below those of most industrialized countries, where 80% or more of students finish the international equivalent of high school.

The report also finds that the United States faces the many of the same challenges as other countries when it comes to educating students. For example, it states that 9% of the 15-year-olds in the United States spoke a “non-test” language, compared to the international average of 10%. In addition, only 9% of American 15-year-olds are foreign-born, compared to 10% internationally. However, the United States had the highest percentage of 15-year-olds from a non-two-parent family, with 45%. The international average of the 20 countries surveyed was 34%, and the country with the next highest percentage was Norway, with 36%.

The complete report is available at

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