Going for the gold in education

The U.S. Olympic team has won more medals than another other country so far in this year’s Vancouver Winter Games. But how do U.S. students fare against their peers from around the globe in math, science, and reading?

It is true the U.S. wouldn’t win gold, silver or bronze in either PIRLS (4th grade reading), TIMSS (4th and 8th grade math and science) or PISA (15 year-old math and science). But it doesn’t mean U.S. students perform poorly on the international stage.  So let’s look at how U.S. students compare across the three major international assessments.

2006 PIRLS

  • U.S. 4th graders were outperformed by seven countries (and three Canadian provinces) out of the 45 participating countries.
  • U.S. average score of 540 was well above the international average of 500.
  • Nearly twice as many U.S. 4th graders scored at the Advanced level (12%) as the international median, which was just 7%.

2007 TIMSS (Math)

4th grade

  • Eight of 35 countries outperformed U.S. 4th graders in 2007.
  • U.S. 4th graders made more gains (9 points) between 1995 and 2007 than 4th graders in Japan (1 point).

8th grade

  • Just five countries (Chinese Taipei, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan) outperformed U.S. 8th graders out of the 47 participating countries.
  • Only two countries (Columbia and Lithuania) made greater gains at the 8th grade level between 1995 and 2007 than the U.S. (16 points).  

2006 PISA (Science)

  • Nearly half (16) of the 30 participating countries outperformed U.S. 15 year-olds in science literacy.
  • Portugal, Turkey and Mexico were the only countries the U.S. outperformed in the content area “Explaining Phenomena Scientifically.”

You might be surprised by the relatively good standing of U.S. students on some of the assessments, especially in 8th grade math. With so much criticism about the performance of U.S. students on international assessments, you might have thought they were performing no better than students in developing countries. This is probably because Americans don’t accept being second best.

Going for the gold in education is important, but it shouldn’t overshadow the fact that our schools have made significant progress in certain areas, such as 8th grade math. Educators should be proud of the progress they have made. Even so, there is still a lot of work left to do. What students need to know and be able to do to be successful after high school is becoming more complex. We need to ensure all students are provided a 21st Century education so they are prepared to go on to college or head out into the workplace. U.S. students may not have a medal now, but if they continue to improve they will be in medal contention in the not-too-distant future.  – Jim Hull

For more information on international assessments and how U.S. students compare to students in other countries check out the Center’s More than a horse race: A guide to international tests of student achievement.

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