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2009 Spotlight

U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement

Science results for 15-year-olds

In PISA 2006, U.S. 15-year-old students' average science literacy score of 489 was lower than the OECD average of 500 (table 9), 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 (as did 15-year-olds in 6 of the 27 non-OECD countries that participated) in terms of average scores. U.S. 15-year-olds in the top 10 percent scored 628 or higher, a cutpoint score below that of the top 10 percent of students in 9 OECD and 4 non-OECD countries. In these 13 countries, cutpoint scores for the top 10 percent of students ranged from 673 in Finland to 640 in Estonia. The bottom 10 percent of U.S. 15-year-olds scored 349 or lower, a cutpoint score below that of the bottom 10 percent of students in 21 OECD and 9 non-OECD countries.

PISA has developed six levels of student achievement to help analyze the range of student performance in science within each participating country. 40 For PISA 2006, the highest two levels of proficiency in science (above 633 score points) denote students who can identify the scientific components of many complex life situations, apply both scientific concepts and knowledge about science to these situations, and can compare, select and evaluate appropriate scientific evidence for responding to life situations. They can use well-developed inquiry abilities, link knowledge appropriately and bring critical insights to situations. They can construct explanations based on evidence and arguments based on their critical analysis.

In 2006, nine percent of U.S. 15-year-olds performed at the highest two levels (figure 15). Thirteen countries had a higher percentage of 15-year-olds who performed at the highest two levels, with the largest percentage in Finland (21 percent). The percentage of students at the highest two levels in New Zealand, Hong Kong, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Australia, Canada, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Slovenia, Liechtenstein, Germany, and the Czech Republic ranged from 18 to 12 percent.

Change over time

Because of the revisions to the PISA science assessment for PISA 2006, direct comparisons of 2006 scores with those from 2000 and 2003 are not possible. Thus we cannot reliably say whether any country's scores increased, decreased, or were not significantly different in 2006 from the earlier administrations.

Further details on the PISA science literacy results can be found in Baldi et al. (2007; available at and OECD (2007; available at For more information on PISA, see

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40 See figure 15 for the cut scores for all six levels of proficiency. For details about all six levels, see OECD 2007, pp. 42–44.