2006 Spotlight

U.S. Student and Adult Performance on International Assessments of Educational Achievement


As part of its congressional mandate, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is required to report on the state of education in the United States and other countries (Education Sciences Reform Act of 2002). To carry out this mission, NCES engages in a number of activities designed to gather information and produce indicators on how the performance of U.S. students, teachers, and schools compares with that of their counterparts in other countries. NCES and other offices within the U.S. Department of Education work with foreign ministries of education and international organizations, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to plan, develop, and implement reliable and meaningful measures across countries.

The United States participates in several international assessments designed to provide comparable information about achievement in various subject areas. These assessments offer an opportunity to compare the performance of U.S. students and adults with that of their peers in other countries. They also provide an opportunity to observe characteristics associated with high and low achievement across countries and to posit questions about policies and practices that could be applied in U.S. schools to improve student learning.

The United States has participated in developing and conducting cross-national assessments since the 1960s. Since the first comparative assessments were given, the number and scope of international assessments have grown. The implementation of technical standards and increased monitoring, along with the expertise that the international community has contributed to assessment design, has improved the quality of data over time. For complete details on the methods instituted to ensure data quality and comparability, see Adams (2005); Martin, Mullis, and Chrostowski (2004); Martin, Mullis, and Kennedy (2003); and Statistics Canada (2005).

Currently, the United States participates in four international assessments: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), which assesses reading performance in grade 4; the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assesses the reading, mathematics, and science literacy of 15-year-olds;1 the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which assesses mathematics and science performance in grades 4 and 8; and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL), which assesses the adult literacy and numeracy skills of 16- to 65-year-olds (table 1). Each international assessment measures one or more dimensions of the performance or ability of U.S. students or adults. Combined with data from national assessments,2 these international assessment data provide educators and policymakers with a more complete picture of educational achievement in the United States.

This special analysis will present major findings from each of these assessments. The purpose of this special analysis is three-fold: (1) to discuss the similarities and differences in the countries participating in the assessments; (2) to report the most recent findings of these assessments; and (3) to compare the overall performance of students and adults in the United States with their peers in other countries.

1PISA assesses each subject every 3 years. However, each assessment cycle focuses on one particular subject. In 2000, the focus was on reading literacy; in 2003, the focus was on mathematics literacy; in 2006, PISA will focus on science literacy. (back to text)

2The international results may differ from trends reported in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other national assessments. For further discussion of the differences between NAEP and the international student assessments, see http://nces.ed.gov/TIMSS/pdf/naep_timss_pisa_comp.pdf. (back to text)

Figures and Tables

Table 1: Recent international assessments