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


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.


American students are near the bottom of the pack in math because those who could teach them are at the bottom of the pack in the licensing and hiring process. The best math teachers are not always the ones with the highest test scores.

So: give us a decade of Charter schools, NCLB, and fast-track alternative teacher certification, and we still wind up with high school students near the bottom of the pack on international tests?

When do we throw out these innovations and experiments and start getting back to the things that, a century ago, made America's students the best in the world--namely, direct instruction (with special education or honors programs for those who can benefit), an atmosphere of discipline, and professional salaries and respect for teachers?

Could this have a lot to do with other countries tracking their students and only the best really go on to higher grades where the testing is being done that is compared. We educate everyone and obviously this will make the results lower.

Tracking doesn't explain it. First, the story is talking about students in 4th and 8th grade where other developed countries have all their students in school. Second, countries that track in high school, such as Japan and Singapore, have a higher percentage of their teens enrolled than in the U.S., where our dropout rate is high. TIMSS tests teens in vocational training as well as in academic schools. Not sure on PiSA.

When talking about tracking, does that include the students whoare diagnosed with various LD and BD issues? What about parental involvement and support? When do we look beyond just the test? What do the classrooms in these high performing countries look like compared to the ones in the US. Are all districts in the US in the same boat as far as scores?

I believe some of the results may have to do with tracking. Tracking in Germany begins often by the 5th grade. However my children were born and raised in Germany until our recent return. My 3rd grade daughter was obviously far ahead of her American contemporaries in Math even though she typically was done with her school day by lunch time. I was a teacher over there and am a teacher here in The States now. I notice that she produced consistently higher quality work. We try to cram a lot of information into kids and drill them on the correct multiple choice responses in order to do well on these standard tests. I've even witnessed classes given on how to take a multiple choice test by eliminating answers that contain for example, absolutes. We spend more time on rote learning which learning theorists have told us for the last century is the least effective way to learn. When our kids do poorly we take away art and music and try even harder to force feed curriculum. At the German school my daughter had art, music, ethics, and English as a foreign language starting in 1st grade. The children were let out of school at lunch time and they still out do us in math skills. Quality over quantity is just one issue. Another is the fact that our culture is simply anti-intellectual. We need to make being smart something to strive for, something to admire.

If you look at the US TIMMS data broken down by race/ethnic group, you'll find white and Asian students scoring well against other nations while blacks and hispanics post third world scores. The problem isn't that we don't know how to teach in America, but rather that we don't know how to teach black and hispanic children.

Pteranodon's comments is misleadingly encouraging. Removing blacks and hispanics is essentially removing poorer kids with less educated parents. If one removes the same sector (poorer kids with less educated parents) from Japan and China, their scores go up as well.

But I am very curious to see where we can get our hands on the distribution of the data for each country. If we are reporting on the average kid, that can be as misleading as the average income. How much is this average being pulled up by spectacular scores by the tracked kids in countries that track kids?

How well does the bottom 10%ile do in the US compared to the bottom 10%ile elsewhere? In the US we spend a lot of effort on pulling everyone up to some very minimal standard. How does our top 10%ile compare? This is perhaps more predictive of whether we will be able to produce enough engineers to continue to compete internationally without importing workers.

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