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.

43 Comments

  1. John Jozsa2 months ago

    Unfortunately, when it comes to education , as well several other vital subjects like healthcare, transportation, infrastructure, government, corporate as well private debt, the US does NOT rank among the civilized nations of the world. While we do spend not just a hell of a lot more than any other nation, but several times more than others nations.
    And that is not just a dire shame, but a road to the graveyard of civilizations.

    Just why not approach the problem like we do approach some other issues? Let those who can do it and do it for sure a lot better, come and do it for us ? I’d suggest to offer 1-3 million H1B visas to teachers, educational experts from those let say, 5 countries that proven they can handle the challange, as thier students do, and almost every time performed a heel of a lot better than American students from our mediocre government schools.

    Any one could list just one logical reason why not ?
    P.S. US graduates about 50M annually in field of “sciences”. China does 260M a year. Nice future ???

  2. Anonymous2 months ago

    Parents please do not let Politicians make this a Political problem. This is a education problem for all kids no matter what Party their Parents support. There are many reasons that our schools are only in the middle of the pack. But looking at the countries ahead of us I can most certainly say it is not because these countries put more money into education then we do. It is where they put the money that they do allocate that makes it work. I think we have gotten way off base on what needs to be and what isn’t needed to be taught in our schools. Parents need to take back their children and demand that the schools teach the basics and leave the teaching of values and being good citizens to their parents. And I doubt if the schools in these countries ahead of us are any way near as fancy as the schools we are building in the USA. All while our inter city schools are falling apart. You can not mandate equality in students getting a education but you can mandate that the facilities they have in which to seek it are equal. Wake up people. Our kids are failing to the point that US companies have to seek employees from countries ahead of us on this list. School choice is a start at parents having some power over what kind of school they want for their children. The same power richer parents have when they choose private schools. The reason given against school choice have nothing to do with what is best for students and their parents. Wake up parents. School choice will force every school to do better. And it gives parents of every economic situation some influence over their children’s schools and what is and isn’t being done. It may not be perfect or the only answer to better schools but it is a start. And what we are doing now is not working. And throwing money at the problem is not the answer. Looking closer at how the money we are already spending is going. I would start with lowering the ever increasing administrative levels and raising the teacher levels with incentives to raise salaries based on success. Automatically raising ones salary and job security based on time worked is not what promotes better teachers. Rewarding good teachers is what makes better teachers. When I look back at my teachers it was not how fancy they decorated their rooms or how current my text book was that inspired me to learn. It was having a teacher comfortable with the material enough to make me want to listen and learn from them. And then to go even farther and want to learn more on my own.

    1. John Jozsa2 months ago

      “Legs behind…” My…… you know what. We are at third world level, the best. Tells about the future of our nation.

      By the way, no less than 65 nations participate, over 1/2 million students tested in the competition by P.I.S.A. annually, about this time of the year.
      Hope you are all proud of the outcome ? Especially the NEA ? Hmmmm???

    2. John Jozsa2 months ago

      @ Anonymous; US spends about twice the amount of money on education ( just like on healthcare, and most everything else) than any other nation on Earth. Tiny Luxemburg is close to us on spending. Yet, even Third World nation provide a better education for their children than US.

      But, oh hell, who cares about the future of our nation and of our children, as long as the “Fund Managers” get their $ 100+ million bonuses every year. And of cause, the wars keep going without end;)) That also does NOT matter if we failed at every war, police action, peace keeping action, nation building action, regime change action, since Nagasaki, as long the $ 3/4 trillion + spent every year.

  3. Anonymous2 months ago

    While this is only one anecdote, my experience after four years of living in Bavaria, Germany is that the public school here is far superior to the highly ranked school that we previously sent our kids to in Vermont. I was surprised by this because we really liked the school in VT and my kids were doing very well there. Yet, my kids (now 4th and 7th grades) are learning a lot more here with less effort and are even happier with the educational experience despite the initial hurdle of having to learn German. I have theories about why the schools are better here: 1) teaching is well paid and highly regarded, so top students pursue this profession, which requires a great deal of training; 2) the course materials and curriculum are VERY efficient, so students learn more with less effort; and 3) school days are usually over by 1 p.m., so kids are not burned out and/or causing disruption. Our problem now is that we feel obligated to try to find a way to stay in Germany because we do not want to put our kids back into the American school system.

  4. Anonymous2 months ago

    Algebra is very easy even 3 year old kids can learn it and 5 year old kids can master it. They can handle pure math and solve random equations with our need to remember any thing or to follow any procedural. They even can see several steps ahead. I believe if you are math researchers, math educators, and math experts you would like to find out.

  5. Anonymous2 months ago

    The “progressive” left formed the federal teachers assosiation some 30 years ago, and all most every year since our world ranking in math and science has dropped. So to fix the problem, they increased their budget every year and the situation has only get worse.
    This my friends is a very accurate and visible gage of their thinking, and ability to lead. FROM BEHIND

  6. Anonymous2 months ago

    For 30 years, US high schools have little improvement on algebra teaching methods. It is fragmented and it is ineffective to solve more complicated equations. Schools teach kids to solve equations from left to right. When there is a need to solve equation from right to left, few kids can handle it. Because all of us learn from incomplete algebra from high schools or colleges, very few of us have enough confidence to say we can solve any algebra equation.
    American can be good in math if math experts, math educators and education department know there is a very simple algebra method can be systematically learned to systematically manipulate numbers and equations without need for procedural process and any memorization. It is so easy even 3 year old kids can learn from it and most 5 year old kids can master it. (Some kids even can do calculus and advanced engineering mathematics by 5 year old – the research result will be complete in 2 years).

  7. Anonymous2 months ago

    When we have people building creationist museums no wonder our kids are the dumbest out of all the developed countries.

  8. Anonymous2 months ago

    Other developed countries don’t have nearly as many blacks and Hispanics as the United States does. I want to see these results control for the racial disparities in educational performance. I highly suspect that the US would be much more in line with other developed Western countries in that case.

  9. Trucee Kelly2 months ago

    I am surprised that no one has brought up that most tests given in elementary to senior high accompany at least EXTRA CREDIT question. These questions are usually easy to help the student push their grade higher. My exchange students could not get over this idea; never heard of in the forign countries we hosted – Austria, Norway and Sweden. It may help the student that day only; but sets them up for failure later in life. Needs to be changed!

  10. Anonymous2 months 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.

  11. Anonymous2 months ago

    You can thank common-core for that!

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Its not as though this is a new problem

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      Common Core has nothing to do with it. Parents are lazy and we have far too many single parent homes.

  12. Anonymous2 months 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.

  13. gomaill22 months 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).

  14. Anonymous1 year 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.

  15. Anonymous1 year ago

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

  16. 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

    1. Anonymous1 year 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.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      this post just gave me brain cancer

  17. Jeff Landrum2 years 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.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

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

  18. udit2 years ago

    no mention of china & India…………..

  19. Nathan Gustavson2 years 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..

    1. Adam2 years 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.

      1. Anonymous2 months ago

        There is no reward for Scientists and engineers in R&D at major corps. IF you patent something you get a certificate. IF you move out of R&D and into marketing or management you get a step increase in salary with potential for more. There is no such reward for staying in the “technical ladder”

    2. qwervqwe vqwevqwev1 year 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.

      1. Anonymous11 months ago

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

      2. Anonymous2 months ago

        Where as Engineering requires both differential and integral Calculus, Differential Equation and even some more advanced math courses. Not 2 mention Science, Thermo, Physics and other tech electives.

  20. 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.

    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.

      1. Kit2 years 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.

    2. Tony Zintnski2 years 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.

    3. Anonymous11 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.

  21. 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).

  22. 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.

  23. 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…

    1. John2 years ago

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

  24. Ram2 years ago

    No assessment of China & India in this report.

  25. 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…

  26. 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.