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2009 Spotlight

U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement

How Do U.S. Students Compare With Their Peers in Other Countries?

This section presents key findings from PIRLS, PISA, and TIMSS and is organized, by subject area, into three parts: reading, mathematics, and science. For each subject area, the assessments in that subject are described and their similarities and differences are highlighted. Then for each assessment in that subject,

  • the U.S. average (mean) student score is compared with those of the other participating countries;
  • the threshold or cutpoint score for "the top 10 percent" of U.S. students (technically the score of U.S. students at the 90th percentile) is compared with the cutpoint score for the top 10 percent of students in other countries;
  • the cutpoint score for the bottom 10 percent of U.S. students is compared with the cutpoint score for the bottom 10 percent of students in other countries;
  • the percentage of students reaching the highest international benchmark or highest level of proficiency set by each assessment is compared; and
  • changes in these measures over time for the United States and for the top-scoring countries are examined, when possible.

These data are described to provide a broader understanding of the performance of U.S. students compared to their peers around the world than is gained by just knowing average scores. Specifically, knowing the cutpoint scores for the top and bottom 10 percent of students tells us how well the highest and lowest performing students do in each country and how wide a range there is in student performance within each country. This range, in turn, provides important contextual information to understand whether a country that outperforms the United States scores higher on account of the performance of its students overall, of mostly its top-performing students, or of mostly its low-performing students. In contrast, comparing the percentage of students who reach the same international benchmarks or levels of proficiency provides information on the extent to which a country's education system brings student performance up to standardized levels that have been internationally established.

After these data have been described for each assessment, you will find references for more detailed information and a brief synthesis of all the assessment results in the subject area.

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