Is the United States Really Losing the International Horse Race in Academic Achievement?

By Boe, Erling E.; Shin, Sujie | Phi Delta Kappan, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Is the United States Really Losing the International Horse Race in Academic Achievement?


Boe, Erling E., Shin, Sujie, Phi Delta Kappan


The results of international assessments of student achievement are far more nuanced than the headlines lead us to believe. Having examined six comparisons of performance -- in various subjects and at various levels -- by students in the U.S. and other industrialized nations, Mr. Boe and Ms. Shin conclude that the dire pronouncements about America's standing are greatly exaggerated.

IT IS widely believed and lamented that U.S. students perform poorly on international comparisons of academic achievement. For example, Edward Silver reports that U.S. seventh- and eighth-grade students performed poorly on the mathematics section of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS 1995) and that this indicates "a pervasive and intolerable mediocrity in mathematics teaching."1 Likewise, the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) in the U.S. Department of Education attributed the reportedly poor performance of U.S. middle- grade students on the TIMSS 1995 mathematics assessment to the ineffectiveness of mathematics education.2 Such perceptions have led to grave concerns about the future economic competitiveness of the U.S. For example, Rita Colwell, the former director of the National Science Foundation, has stated that if the U.S. is to maintain its position in the world economy, it is critical for the nation's students to achieve at high levels in mathematics and science.3

Given the concern about the strength of the U.S. economy, it is often said that the nation's students perform poorly compared with students in "many" other industrialized nations. This indeed is true. One can pick a particular survey (e.g., TIMSS 1995), subject matter (e.g., mathematics), and grade level (e.g., grade 8) and find "many" industrialized nations that scored significantly higher than the U.S. (e.g., France, Japan, and Switzerland).4 Yet it is also true that U.S. students perform better than students in many industrialized nations. For example, the U.S. scored significantly higher than many industrialized nations (e.g., France, Germany, and Switzerland) in the 1991 Reading Literacy Study at grade 4.5 (Throughout this article, "significantly" refers to statistical significance.)

Thus, depending on one's interest or agenda, a particular survey result can be selected to support almost any conclusion about how the U.S. stands in the international achievement horse race. For instance, in order to support the conclusion that the U.S. was at risk of falling well behind other nations in economic competitiveness, the first item of evidence cited in A Nation at Risk was "that on 19 academic tests American students were never first or second and, in comparison with other industrialized nations, were last seven times."6 No mention was made of which international tests, grade levels, or subjects were selected for these comparisons, and nothing was said about how U.S. achievement on average compared with that of other industrialized nations.7

A much more objective and accurate assessment of the standing of the U.S. in international comparisons would be based on the results of multiple surveys, multiple subject matters, and multiple grade levels. Fortunately, another generation of international achievement surveys has been completed since 1990, and it is worth looking at the U.S. performance on these more recent assessments. In addition to being of high technical quality, these international assessments are not limited to mathematics and science, as were surveys from previous years, but also include subjects such as reading and civics.

The perception of poor performance by U.S. students on international comparisons is typically attributed to the ineffectiveness of American public education. Educators and policy makers of widely different perspectives embrace this conclusion because it creates enormous pressure for change. It is useful to those who are dedicated to reforming public education in various ways, as well as to those who seek to diminish public schooling through strategies such as voucher programs that would increasingly privatize the system.

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