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
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. …