How Does US Compare in Math, Science, Reading? Younger Students Do Better

By Paulson, Amanda | The Christian Science Monitor, December 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

How Does US Compare in Math, Science, Reading? Younger Students Do Better


Paulson, Amanda, The Christian Science Monitor


The US may not lead the world in math, science, or fourth-grade reading, but its not doing that badly, either.

That, at least, is one takeaway from the latest data from two big international studies released Tuesday.

Heres another: Finland isnt quite as perfect, at least according to these tests, as some education policy folks might have us believe.

When you look at the US scores, those scores are solid, says Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who also notes that there is still a lot of room for improvement, particularly on math and science. There shouldnt be complacency, but there also shouldnt be alarmist rhetoric.

The two tests released Tuesday, both with 2011 data, were the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which measures math and science achievement for fourth- and eighth- graders around the world, and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which measures fourth-grade reading.

Quickly distilling the results to a simple ranking or looking at how the US moved in the rankings from the last TIMSS test, given in 2007 is complicated. Not only are there varying grade and subject levels, but a number of educational systems participate in the test, including several US states and places like Hong Kong that dont quite achieve nation status and the list of participating countries is a little different each time.

That said, in some cases, the US stacked up fairly well against other countries and educational systems, particularly on PIRLS, where the US average score of 556 was significantly higher than the international average, set at 500.

The US scored lower in the reading study than did five educational systems (Hong Kong, the state of Florida, the Russian Federation, Finland, and Singapore), was statistically equal to seven others, and was higher than 40.

More striking (particularly given that in US measurements, reading scores have been harder to improve than math scores), the US average improved an impressive 16 points from the last time the test was given in 2006. And in terms of the percentages of students scoring at or above the most advanced reading benchmark score, only two systems Singapore and Florida were ahead of the United States.

In the TIMSS math and science scores, the results for the US were more mixed. The US average score increased by a measurable amount in fourth-grade math, but remained statistically unchanged in fourth- grade science and eighth-grade math and science.

The US average was higher than the international average in all subjects, but, as with the domestic report card scores, students performance seemed to fall with older students.

Eight education systems (including the state of North Carolina) scored better than the US in fourth-grade math, while by eighth grade, 11 outscored the US (including Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, and Indiana).

In science, the US fell even more rapidly: Just six education systems outscored the US in fourth grade, and by eighth grade, 12 had higher average scores.

What we see in our national assessment is improvement among our youngest kids, notes Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which released the data. But when you start looking at our older students, you see less improvement over time. Those results, he says, are mirrored here, as well as in the other major international comparison, PISA, which tests 15-year- olds, and on which the US tends to fare more poorly than on TIMSS.

"These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps," US Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement.

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