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International Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy

U.S. Performance in Science

The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a system of international assessments that measures 15-year-olds’ performance in reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy every 3 years. PISA, first implemented in 2000, is sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organization of 30 member countries. The PISA assessment measures student performance on a combined science literacy scale and on three science literacy subscales: identifying scientific issues, explaining phenomena scientifically, and using scientific evidence.

Along with scale scores, PISA 2006 uses six proficiency levels to describe student performance in science literacy, with level 6 being the highest level of proficiency (Figure 1). The United States had greater percentages of students below level 1 (8 percent) and at level 1 (17 percent) than the OECD average percentages on the combined science literacy scale (5 percent below level 1 and 14 percent at level 1).

Fifteen-year-old students in the United States had an average score of 489 on the combined science literacy scale, lower than the OECD average score of 500 (Table 1). U.S. students scored lower on science literacy than their peers in 16 of the other 29 OECD jurisdictions and 6 of the 27 non-OECD jurisdictions. Twenty-two jurisdictions (5 OECD jurisdictions and 17 non-OECD jurisdictions) reported lower scores compared to the United States in science literacy.

U.S. students also had lower scores than the OECD average score for two of the three content area subscales (explaining phenomena scientifically (486 versus 500) and using scientific evidence (489 versus 499)) (Table 1). There was no measurable difference in the performance of U.S. students compared with the OECD average on the identifying scientific issues subscale (492 versus 499).

Figure 1. Percentage distribution of 15-year-old students in the United States and OECD jurisdictions on combined science literacy scale, by proficiency level: 2006


Percentage distribution of 15-year-old students in the United States and OECD jurisdictions on combined science literacy scale, by proficiency level: 2006

* p< .05. Significantly different from the corresponding OECD average percentage at the .05 level of statistical significance.
NOTE: To reach a particular proficiency level, a student must correctly answer a majority of items at that level. Students were classified into science literacy levels according to their scores. Exact cut point scores are as follows: below level 1 (a score less than or equal to 334.94); level 1 (a score greater than 334.94 and less than or equal to 409.54); level 2 (a score greater than 409.54 and less than or equal to 484.14); level 3 (a score greater than 484.14 and less than or equal to 558.73); level 4 (a score greater than 558.73 and less than or equal to 633.33); level 5 (a score greater than 633.33 and less than or equal to 707.93); and level 6 (a score greater than 707.93). The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average is the average of the national averages of the OECD member jurisdictions. Because of an error in printing the test booklets, the United States mean performance may be misestimated by approximately 1 score point. The impact is below one standard error. For details see appendix B. Detail may not sum to totals because of rounding.
SOURCE: SOURCE: Figure 4 in Baldi, S., Jin, Y., Skemer, M., Green, P.J., and Herget, D. (2007). ). Highlights From PISA 2006: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy in an International Context (NCES 2008-016). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Table 1. Average scores of 15-year-old students on combined science literacy scale and science literacy subscales, by jurisdiction: 2006


Average scores of 15-year-old students on combined science literacy scale and science literacy subscales, by jurisdiction: 2006

NOTE: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average is the average of the national averages of the OECD member jurisdictions. Because the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is principally an OECD study, the results for non-OECD jurisdictions are displayed separately from those of the OECD jurisdictions and are not included in the OECD average. Jurisdictions are ordered on the basis of average scores, from highest to lowest within the OECD jurisdictions and non-OECD jurisdictions. Combined science literacy scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000. Because of an error in printing the test booklets, the United States mean performance may be misestimated by approximately 1 score point. The impact is below one standard error. For details see appendix B. Score differences as noted between the United States and other jurisdictions (as well as between the United States and the OECD average) are significantly different at the .05 level of statistical significance.
SOURCE: SOURCE: Table 2 in Baldi, S., Jin, Y., Skemer, M., Green, P.J., and Herget, D. (2007). ). Highlights From PISA 2006: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy in an International Context (NCES 2008-016). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

U.S. Performance in Mathematics

In 2006, the average U.S. score in mathematics literacy was 474, lower than the OECD average score of 498 (Table 2). Thirty-one jurisdictions (23 OECD jurisdictions and 8 non-OECD jurisdictions) scored higher on average, than the United States in mathematics literacy in 2006. In contrast, 20 jurisdictions (4 OECD jurisdictions and 16 non-OECD jurisdictions) scored lower than the United States in mathematics literacy in 2006.

When comparing the performance of the highest achieving students—those at the 90th percentile—U.S. students scored lower (593) than the OECD average (615) on the mathematics literacy scale. Twenty-nine jurisdictions (23 OECD jurisdictions and 6 non-OECD jurisdictions) had students at the 90th percentile with higher scores than the United States on the mathematics literacy scale.

Table 2. Average scores of 15-year-old students on mathematics literacy scale, by jurisdiction: 2006

Average scores of 15-year-old students on mathematics literacy scale, by jurisdiction: 2006
NOTE: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) average is the average of the national averages of the OECD member jurisdictions. Because the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is principally an OECD study, the results for non-OECD jurisdictions are displayed separately from those of the OECD jurisdictions and are not included in the OECD average. Jurisdictions are ordered on the basis of average scores, from highest to lowest within the OECD jurisdictions and non-OECD jurisdictions. Mathematics literacy scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000. Because of an error in printing the test booklets, the United States mean performance may be misestimated by approximately 1 score point. The impact is below one standard error. For details see appendix B. Score differences as noted between the United States and other jurisdictions (as well as between the United States and the OECD average) are significantly different at the .05 level of statistical significance.
SOURCE: SOURCE: Table 3 in Baldi, S., Jin, Y., Skemer, M., Green, P.J., and Herget, D. (2007). ). Highlights From PISA 2006: Performance of U.S. 15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy in an International Context (NCES 2008-016). U.S. Department of Education. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

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