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2009 Spotlight

U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement

Mathematics results for 15-year-olds

In PISA 2006, U.S. 15-year-old students' average mathematics literacy score of 474 was lower than the OECD average of 498 (table 6), and placed U.S. 15-year-olds in the bottom quarter of participating OECD nations. Fifteen-year-old students in 23 of the 29 other participating OECD-member countries outperformed their U.S. peers (as did 15-year-olds in 8 of the 27 non-OECD countries that participated) in terms of average scores.

A comparable pattern is evident when looking at the results of U.S. 15-year-olds in the top 10 percent of performance. The top 10 percent of 15-year-olds in the same 23 OECD countries and in 6 of the 8 non-OECD countries scored higher than the top 10 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds, who scored 593 or higher. In comparison, students in the top 10 percent in Chinese Taipei scored 677 or higher; in Hong Kong, 665 or higher; and in Korea, 664 or higher. Comparing the performances of the bottom 10 percent of students in each country, 18 OECD countries and 8 non-OECD countries scored higher than the United States, where the bottom 10 percent of 15-year-olds scored 358 or lower.

PISA has developed six levels of student achievement to help analyze the range of student performance in mathematics within each participating country. 33 The highest level of proficiency in mathematics (above 669 score points for PISA 2006) identifies students who are capable of advanced mathematical thinking and reasoning and who demonstrate a mastery of symbolic and formal mathematical operations and relationships. They can conceptualize, generalize, and use information based on their investigations and modeling of complex problem situations. They can link different information sources and representations and can flexibly translate among them. They can develop new approaches and strategies for attacking novel situations.

In 2006, one percent of U.S. 15-year-olds performed at this level (figure 9). Twenty-seven countries had a higher percentage of 15-year-olds who performed at this level; Chinese Taipei had the largest percentage of students at this level (12 percent). The percentage of students at this level in Korea, Hong Kong, Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, the Czech Republic, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, The Netherlands, and Japan ranged from 9 to 5 percent.

Change over time

Because of the addition of a content domain to the PISA mathematics assessment in 2003, only the results of PISA 2003 and PISA 2006 are compared here. Among the 40 countries that participated in both PISA 2003 and PISA 2006, average mathematics literacy scores increased in 4 countries and decreased in 4 countries (figure 10). 34 There was no measurable change in the average U.S. mathematics literacy score between 2003 and 2006, in its relationship to the OECD average, or in its relationship to the countries whose scores increased or decreased.

However, three countries whose scores were not measurably different than the United States in 2003 outperformed the United States in 2006: Latvia, Hungary, and Poland.

More detailed information on the PISA 2006 results can be found in Baldi et al. (2007; available at and OECD (2007; available at For more information on PISA, see

33 See figure 9 for the cut scores for all six levels of proficiency. For details about all six levels, see OECD 2007, pp. 312–15.
34 Note that statistical comparisons between PISA 2003 scores and PISA 2006 scores properly need to account for linking error. See appendix A for details.