U.S. students score below average in world reading, math and science tests

The 2012 Program for International Student Assessment are out, revealing how more than 60 countries compare with one another in reading, math and science.


How do students in the United States compare to those around the world?  According to the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey, American students scored slightly below average on the reading, math and science tests taken last year by 500,000 15-year-olds around the globe. Students in several Asian countries earned the highest scores on the 2012 exams created by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

“They are never perfect but PISA shows what is possible in education,” Andreas Schleicher, OEDC's Deputy Director for Education and Skills said on a video explaining the scores. “It helps countries see themselves in the mirror of the educational results and the opportunities that are delivered by the world’s educational leaders.”

The PISA test is given every three years in more than 60 countries in an effort to measure achievement. Before the OECD developed the test two decades ago, governments were being compared by how much money they spend on education, not how well students performed, Schleicher told the BBC.

The 2012 survey had a special focus on math literacy, and in that subject Shanghai, China (Taipei, Macau and Hong Kong were also among the testing sites in China) scored higher than any other country measured in the testing round. The United States fared slightly below average compared to other participating countries.

While the U.S. as a whole earned low marks on the tests, individual states stood out in some subjects. Massachusetts scored better than the U.S. average in the math test, putting it on par with Germany. Florida scored below the U.S. average.

The report also analyzed the correlations between social background and learning outcomes and examined how spending on education relates to academic performance.

With the U.S. scores below the average of other participating countries, suggestions about how to improve student performance will almost inevitably follow the release of the PISA results. But a January 2013 report from the Economic Policy Institute (and therefore not reflecting any analysis of the 2012 PISA testing data but including data evaluation from the 2009 test), found that conclusions drawn from international test comparisons can often be oversimplified and exaggerated. It suggests making meaningful policy decisions about the U.S. educational system based on the data alone is ill advised without a more comprehensive study of the results and methodology.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.