February 15, 2017

U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries

How do U.S. students compare with their peers around the world? Recently released data from international math and science assessments indicate that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations.

One of the biggest cross-national tests is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which every three years measures reading ability, math and science literacy and other key skills among 15-year-olds in dozens of developed and developing countries. The most recent PISA results, from 2015, placed the U.S. an unimpressive 38th out of 71 countries in math and 24th in science. Among the 35 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which sponsors the PISA initiative, the U.S. ranked 30th in math and 19th in science.

Younger American students fare somewhat better on a similar cross-national assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. That study, known as TIMSS, has tested students in grades four and eight every four years since 1995. In the most recent tests, from 2015, 10 countries (out of 48 total) had statistically higher average fourth-grade math scores than the U.S., while seven countries had higher average science scores. In the eighth-grade tests, seven out of 37 countries had statistically higher average math scores than the U.S., and seven had higher science scores.

Another long-running testing effort is the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a project of the federal Education Department. In the most recent NAEP results, from 2015, average math scores for fourth- and eighth-graders fell for the first time since 1990. A team from Rutgers University is analyzing the NAEP data to try to identify the reasons for the drop in math scores.

The average fourth-grade NAEP math score in 2015 was 240 (on a scale of 0 to 500), the same level as in 2009 and down from 242 in 2013. The average eighth-grade score was 282 in 2015, compared with 285 in 2013; that score was the lowest since 2007. (The NAEP has only tested 12th-graders in math four times since 2005; their 2015 average score of 152 on a 0-to-300 scale was one point lower than in 2013 and 2009.) 

Looked at another way, the 2015 NAEP rated 40% of fourth-graders, 33% of eighth-graders and 25% of 12th-graders as “proficient” or “advanced” in math. While far fewer fourth- and eighth-graders now rate at “below basic,” the lowest performance level (18% and 29%, respectively, versus 50% and 48% in 1990), improvement in the top levels appears to have stalled out. (Among 12th-graders, 38% scored at the lowest performance level in math, a point lower than in 2005.)

NAEP also tests U.S. students on science, though not as regularly, and the limited results available indicate some improvement. Between 2009 and 2015, the average scores of both fourth- and eight-graders improved from 150 to 154 (on a 0-to-300 scale), although for 12th-graders the average score remained at 150. In 2015, 38% of fourth-graders, 34% of eighth-graders and 22% of 12th-graders were rated proficient or better in science; 24% of fourth-graders, 32% of eighth-graders and 40% of 12th-graders were rated “below basic.”

These results likely won’t surprise too many people. In a 2015 Pew Research Center report, only 29% of Americans rated their country’s K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (known as STEM) as above average or the best in the world. Scientists were even more critical: A companion survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16% called U.S. K-12 STEM education the best or above average; 46%, in contrast, said K-12 STEM in the U.S. was below average.

Note: This is an update of a post originally published Feb. 2, 2015. It has been updated to include more recent data.

Topics: Education, Educational Attainment, Science and Innovation

  1. Photo of Drew DeSilver

    is a senior writer at Pew Research Center.

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27 Comments

  1. Anonymous4 days ago

    The U.S. has made education low priority. We’ve have become too comfortable in our position in the world. Education should be top priority along with with homeland security. The USA is slipping -who thought it would be wise to cut Arts, Sciences, and Teacher’s salaries! Make college Free or affordable. Doctors shuld be seen for for illness not experiments and expensive routine tests. Forget the $26 Billion wall.

    Reply
  2. Anonymous4 days ago

    You can thank common-core for that!

    Reply
  3. Anonymous4 days ago

    I have to say I worked so hard but only ranked about 20 percentile in my high school in China (I think my high school was second tier in China) , and I came to US and easily scored top 5% in my undergraduate classes in a top 20 university in US.

    Reply
  4. gomaill24 days ago

    For those asking about China and India: India didn’t administer the test this past time around as the country had scored incredibly low in the previous PISA results. China only tests a small portion of the country, but the scores are very high as you would expect.

    Anyway, the US scores are fairly misleading due to the county’s demographics. White and Asian Americans score very, very high on science and reading (a little lagging on math, but not significantly).

    Reply
  5. Anonymous11 months ago

    PISA doesn’t just test all the students in one country and then only the smarter ones in another, they break down the results based on the levels. The US still fairs very poorly when you look at their Top Percentile Students compared to other Top Percentile Students, it’s not stupid vs. brainiacs with the results.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous11 months ago

    If the United States’ score is from the TOP five or ten percent, then there is definitely a huge problem here.

    Reply
  7. MLG M81 year ago

    W8 m8 the united st8s were b8ed into doing math and sience cuz the asins are have pro strategies 5 test sniping and are 3 clever 5 us so we got rekt

    Reply
    1. Anonymous11 months ago

      I’m just going to go ahead and say that the reason we have such poor test scores in America is because of people who have an education level like MLG M8 here.

      Reply
  8. Jeff Landrum1 year ago

    On the countries that scored above the U.S., what percentage of total students were tested?
    My district prides itself in testing every student, not the upper 5 or 10% which I get the feeling is happening.

    Reply
    1. Anonymous11 months ago

      If the United States’ score is from the TOP 5 or ten percent, then their is definitely a problem.

      Reply
  9. udit1 year ago

    no mention of china & India…………..

    Reply
  10. Nathan Gustavson1 year ago

    As long as a business majors continue to make twice as much as engineers with half the education, why would Americans choose science? It doesn’t matter how cool the government tells kids it is if the economy doesn’t support it. Most of the engineers in my office are taking management courses to get out. We can’t keep the ones we have now..

    Reply
    1. Adam1 year ago

      Engineers make far more than business majors by any measure. The jobs which possibly pay better than engineering jobs (although plenty of CS majors start at 140K all-in) are consulting and investment banking, and those are open to all majors, but engineers with a strong math background have a big leg-up.

      Reply
    2. qwervqwe vqwevqwev11 months ago

      Business majors get paid well, but not as much as engineers.

      Also business is not always easy. The vast majority of 4 year colleges/universities require at least calculus I or statistics for any business major.

      Reply
      1. Anonymous9 months ago

        So what you are saying is that all a business major has to have is differential calculus… Wow not really impressive…

        Reply
  11. Mark2 years ago

    The problem for the US is we test ALL of your kids (the smart, the average, and the stupid) while the rest of the world only tests the smart kids. Of course the US results are Average, because of who we test. If we tested only to the smart and above average kids our test scores would be up with South Korea and the rest.
    This is the big secret nobody knows.

    It’s like having a dog barking contest. The world brings their best dogs….the US brings a mixture of dogs and cats. Then we get mad when the cats can’t bark. We spend millions and millions of dollars to teach cats to bark. No matter how much money you spend the cats will never, ever bark.

    Reply
    1. Wcg2 years ago

      As far as I know Canada tests all students and I suspect Finland and other European countries do too. I don’t see a reason to compete with the rote learning systems of Asia but the West should aspire to the top ten.

      Reply
      1. Kit1 year ago

        America doesn’t need to compete with the world, they just need to be able to afford to hire the rest of the world.

        Reply
    2. Tony Zintnski1 year ago

      all countries are averaged, just guess Amercia’ are a little thicker than most western. Perhaps if the tests was on warmongering or fast food they would get a higher ranking.

      Reply
    3. Anonymous9 months ago

      Canada tests all it’s students. How do you know this “big secret”?? How asinine. You would rather imagine that everyone else is cheating than think that your government is failing you and you are failing your children by demanding change.

      Reply
  12. Bart Zehren2 years ago

    How would the country-level scores be different if the tested students were drawn as a random sample from ALL children of the school age range? That is, without regard to whether or not the selected child is, or ever has been, in school. Can you provide data in that way?

    Please let us know as soon as researchers have figured out how to administer that kind of measurement and what they’ve found.

    Also, of course, by showing proportions of students “performing” at different levels your report tells us nothing about the “quality” or “performance” of the schools in a country. What is learned is information about the mix of students living in countries as compared to one another at given points in time. These data do not report results of cohorts of students trakced longitudinally. Thus they are not about student progress at all, they’re about a static, cross-sectional comparison of fully separate respondent groups, i.e., of different subsets of students.

    If we’re going to focus on that perspective, how about showing the different amounts of variance of students’ scores across the student bodies tested in each country? Then, given my comment above about disregarding school attendance as a qualifier, one could mark, for analysis purposes, those who are attending school vs. those who are not, as well as note the relative proportion that school attendees represent in each country. I offer this in the spirit of “No Child Left Behind” so that ALL children are considered and represented in such global research efforts and reports – not just those currently enrolled in a school (not to mention, depending on the country, not just those enrolled in certain types or kinds of schools).

    Reply
  13. Jon2 years ago

    This is more a ranking about standardization of education. Countries favoring rot learning without thinking are at the very top. For instance, France ranks pretty low in this ranking. Yet high schoolers who are good at physics/math go on to graduate with a Scientific Baccalaureate (end of high school) , with a level rarely attained by their Asian counterparts, and for that matter Americans with a 4 year college degree. This ranking therefore is deceiving and inaccurate. It takes population as a whole or a sample, not taking into account countries with an elitist education system like France, where one’s path is already decided in junior high school.

    In countries like Japan, tests are a lot more standardized and everyone is expected to learn the same things up to a certain age. However the scientific approach, that of learning how to do a proper mathematical demonstration would not score very high.

    Reply
  14. alancook2 years ago

    National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

    Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

    The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

    Project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

    Alan Cook
    info@thenumberyard.com
    thenumberyard.com
    mathconstructioneducationindustr…

    Reply
    1. John2 years ago

      Your comment indicates a preference for STEM methodologies… do you believe we should go more in that direction?

      Reply
  15. Ram2 years ago

    No assessment of China & India in this report.

    Reply
  16. Richard Askey2 years ago

    PISA does not give a comprehensive summary of what goes on in mathematics education. To see an example see
    schoolinfosystem.org/pdf/2013/02…

    Reply
  17. Meme Mine2 years ago

    *Quote one CO2 scientist that says the scientific method won’t “allow” them to say a “THREAT TO THE PLANET” is “proven”.
    Climate blame “belief” was to liberalism what the “right to life” issue is to the knuckle draggers of the Tea Party.

    Reply