Closer Look 2009
U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement
The Condition of Education summarizes important developments and trends in education using the latest available data. The report, which the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is required by law to produce, is an indicator report intended for a general audience of readers who are interested in education. The indicators represent a consensus of professional judgment on the most significant national measures of the condition and progress of education for which accurate data are available. For the 2009 edition, NCES prepared a special analysis to take a closer look at U.S. student performance on international assessments.
This special analysis looks at information gathered from recent international studies that U.S. students have participated in: the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). PIRLS, sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and first conducted in 2001, assesses the reading performance of 4th-graders every 5 years. PISA, sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and first conducted in 2000, assesses the reading, mathematics, and science literacy of 15-year-old students every 3 years. And TIMSS, sponsored by the IEA and first conducted in 1995, assesses the mathematics and science performance of both 4th- and 8th-graders every 4 years. Not all countries1 have participated in all three studies or in all administrations of a single study's assessments. All three studies include both developed and developing countries; however, TIMSS and PIRLS have a larger proportion of developing countries participating than PISA does because PISA is principally a study of the member countries of the OECD—an intergovernmental organization of 30 developed countries.
This special analysis examines the performance of U.S. students in reading, mathematics, and science compared with the performance of their peers in other countries that participated in PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS. It identifies which of these countries have outperformed the United States, in terms of students' average scores and the percentage of students reaching internationally benchmarked performance levels, and which countries have done so consistently.
Major findings include:
- In PIRLS 2006, the average U.S. 4th-graders' reading literacy score (540) was above the PIRLS scale average of 500, but below that of 4th-graders in 10 of the 45 participating countries, including 3 Canadian provinces (Russian Federation, Hong Kong, Alberta, British Columbia, Singapore, Luxembourg, Ontario, Hungary, Italy, and Sweden).
- Among the 28 countries that participated in both the 2001 and 2006 PIRLS assessments, the average reading literacy score increased in 8 countries and decreased in 6 countries. In the rest of these countries, including the United States, there was no measurable change in the average reading literacy score between 2001 and 2006. The number of these countries that outperformed the United States increased from 3 in 2001 to 7 in 2006.
- The 2007 TIMSS results showed that U.S. students' average mathematics score was 529 for 4th-graders and 508 for 8th-graders. Both scores were above the TIMSS scale average, which is set at 500 for every administration of TIMSS at both grades, and both were higher than the respective U.S. score in 1995.
- Fourth-graders in 8 of the 35 other countries that participated in 2007 (Hong Kong, Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Kazakhstan, Russian Federation, England, and Latvia) scored above their U.S. peers, on average; and 8th-graders in 5 of the 47 other countries that participated in 2007 (Chinese Taipei, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan) scored above their U.S. peers, on average.
- Among the 16 countries that participated in both the first TIMSS in 1995 and the most recent TIMSS in 2007, at grade 4, the average mathematics score increased in 8 countries, including in the United States, and decreased in 4 countries. Among the 20 countries that participated in both the 1995 and 2007 TIMSS at grade 8, the average mathematics score increased in 6 countries, including in the United States, and decreased in 10 countries.
- In PISA 2006, U.S. 15-year-old students' average mathematics literacy score of 474 was lower than the OECD average of 498, and placed U.S. 15-year-olds in the bottom quarter of participating OECD nations, a relative position unchanged from 2003.
There was no measurable change in U.S. 15-year-olds' average mathematics literacy score between 2003 and 2006, in its relationship to the OECD average, or in its relative position to the countries whose scores increased or decreased.
- Fifteen-year-old students in 23 of the 29 other participating OECD-member countries outperformed their U.S. peers.
- The 2007 TIMSS results showed that U.S. students' average science score was 539 for 4th-graders and 520 for 8th-graders. Both scores were above the TIMSS scale average, which is set at 500 for every administration of TIMSS at both grades, but neither was measurably different than the respective U.S. score in 1995.
- Fourth-graders in 4 of the 35 other countries that participated in 2007 (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, and Japan) scored above their U.S. peers, on average; and 8th-graders in 9 of the 47 other countries that participated in 2007 (Singapore, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Korea, England, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and the Russian Federation) scored above their U.S. peers, on average.
- While there was no measurable change in the average score of U.S. 4th-graders or 8th-graders in science between 1995 and 2007, among the other 15 countries that participated in the 1995 and 2007 TIMSS at grade 4, the average science score increased in 7 countries and decreased in 5 countries; and among the other 18 countries that participated in both the 1995 and 2007 TIMSS at grade 8, the average science score increased in 5 countries and decreased in 3 countries.
- In PISA 2006, U.S. 15-year-old students' average science literacy score of 489 was lower than the OECD average of 500, and placed U.S. 15-year-olds in the bottom third of participating OECD nations. Fifteen-year-old students in 16 of the 29 other participating OECD-member countries outperformed their U.S. peers in terms of average scores.
Technical notes about the data sources, methodology, and standard errors are included at the end of this report.
1 The term "country" is used throughout this special analysis as a common name for the range of political entities that have participated in each study. In most cases, participating countries represent an entire nation state, as in the case of the United States. However, in some studies, participating countries represent parts of nation states. For example, several Canadian provinces participated separately in PIRLS 2006, instead of Canada. Likewise, England and Scotland regularly participate separately (instead of the entire United Kingdom) and Belgium regularly participates as two units (Flemish-speaking and French-speaking Belgium) in PIRLS and TIMSS. Similarly, Hong Kong and Macao, which are special administrative regions (SAR) of China, also participate independently.