2009 Spotlight

U.S. Performance Across International Assessments of Student Achievement


The performance of U.S. students neither leads nor trails the world in reading, mathematics, or science at any grade or age. In the most recent international assessments, the highest average scores

  • in reading were from the Russian Federation, Hong Kong, Alberta, Singapore, and British Columbia at 4th-grade; and from Korea among 15-year-olds;
  • in mathematics were from Hong Kong and Singapore at 4th-grade; from Chinese Taipei, Korea, and Singapore at 8th-grade; and from Chinese Taipei, Finland, Hong Kong, and Korea among 15-year-olds; and
  • in science were from Singapore at 4th-grade; from Singapore and Chinese Taipei at 8th-grade; and from Finland among 15-year-olds.

In reading, U.S. student performance has not changed since the first administrations of PIRLS and PISA, and U.S. students in general have performed either not measurably different or higher than their peers in roughly three-quarters of the other countries that have participated in PIRLS and PISA assessments. However, between 2001 and 2006, 4th-graders in Hong Kong, Hungary, Italy, the Russian Federation, Singapore, and Ontario improved their scores and in 2006 surpassed their U.S. peers, whose scores were not measurably different than in 2001. Because of the lack of valid 2006 PISA reading scores for the United States, we do not know whether the reading achievement of U.S. 15-year-olds changed between 2003 and 2006, but in 2003, U.S. 15-year-olds performed in the middle third of OECD countries.

In mathematics, U.S. student scores have improved at both grades 4 and 8 since the first administration of TIMSS; however, the scores of U.S. 15-year-olds in PISA have not measurably changed. In 2007, U.S. 4th-graders improved their average score and surpassed their peers in four European countries that outperformed the United States in 1995, though England and Latvia improved more and outperformed the United States in 2003 and 2007. Also in 2007, U.S. 8th-graders gained ground relative to their European and Australian peers—though they have not caught up with their peers in Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, or Singapore. The most recent PISA assessments, however, suggest that U.S. 15-year-olds are not as successful in applying mathematics knowledge and skills to real-world tasks as their peers in most other OECD countries. In the 2006 PISA assessment, U.S. 15-year-olds' average scores were not measurably different than in 2003, keeping the United States in the bottom quarter of OECD countries.

In science, results from the most recent TIMSS assessment show that U.S. 4th-graders have fallen behind their peers in several countries, even though their average scores in science have not declined since the first TIMSS assessment in 1995. At the 8th grade, U.S. scores on the most recent assessment were also not measurably different than in 1995, but they fell behind those in the Russian Federation and they continue to lag behind those in Chinese Taipei, the Czech Republic, England, Hungary, Japan, Korea, and Singapore. The most recent PISA assessment suggests that U.S. 15-year-olds are not able to apply scientific knowledge and skills to real-world tasks as well as their peers in the majority of other OECD countries: in the most recent science assessment of 15-year-olds, the United States continued to perform below the OECD average.