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Digest of Education Statistics: 2004
Digest of Education Statistics: 2004

NCES 2006-005
October 2005

Chapter 6: International Comparisons of Education

This chapter offers a broad perspective on education across the nations of the world. It also provides an international context for examining the condition of education in the United States. Insights into the educational practices and outcomes of the United States are obtained by comparing them with those of other countries. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) carries out a variety of these activities to provide statistical data for international comparisons of education.

This chapter presents data drawn from materials prepared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Institute of International Education, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). The basic summary data on enrollments, teachers, enrollment ratios, and finances were synthesized from information appearing in Education at a Glance, published by OECD. Even though OECD tabulations are very carefully prepared, international data users should be cautioned about the many problems of definition and reporting involved in the collection of data about the educational systems in the world (See OECD entry in Appendix A. Guide to Sources).

This chapter also presents data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) carried out under the aegis of the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and supported by NCES and the National Science Foundation. TIMSS, conducted every four years, is an assessment of fourth- and eighth-graders in mathematics and science. In 1995, TIMSS collected data for 4th and 8th grade. In 1999, TIMMS collected data for 8th grade only. With the 2003 data collection, TIMSS offers the first international trend comparisons in mathematics and science at grades four and eight. This survey was formerly known as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. In 2003, the United States and a number of other countries participated in data collection at two grade levels: 25 nations collected data on fourth-graders and 45 nations collected data on eighth-graders. For 15 of these nations, including the United States, TIMSS offers comparisons of fourth-grade student achievement between 1995 and 2003. For 34 of these nations, including the United States, TIMSS also offers comparisons of eighth-grade student achievement between 2003 and at least one prior data collection year, either 1995 or 1999.

This chapter includes additional information on performance scores of 15-year-olds in the areas of reading, mathematics, and science literacy from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA also measures general or cross-curricular competencies such as learning strategies. While this study focuses on OECD countries, data from some non-OECD countries are also provided.

The role that the United States plays in the world of higher education is illuminated by data on foreign students enrolled in U.S. institutions of higher education. The Institute of International Education provides estimates of the number of foreign students and their countries of origin.

Further information on survey methodologies is in the Guide to Sources in appendix A and in the publications cited in the source notes.



Among the reporting OECD countries, Iceland had the largest percentage of young people ages 5 to 14 (16 percent in 2002) (table 395). The closest followers were New Zealand (15 percent) and the United States (15 percent). Countries with relatively small numbers of persons in this age group included Greece, Spain, Japan, and Italy at 10 percent.


In 1997, about 1.2 billion students were enrolled in schools around the world (table 393). Of these students, 668 million were in elementary-level programs, 398 million were in secondary programs, and 88 million were in higher education programs. Between 1990 and 1997, enrollment changes varied from region to region. Changes in elementary enrollment ranged from increases of 24 percent in Africa, 17 percent in Oceania, 13 percent in Central and South America, 12 percent in Asia and 8 percent in Northern America (defined in UNESCO tabulations as including the United States, Canada, and Greenland) to a 5 percent decrease in Europe (figure 27). Over the same period, enrollment increases at the secondary level outpaced increases at the primary (elementary) level, especially in Africa (38 percent), Oceania (68 percent), Asia (31 percent), and Central and South America (31 percent). At the secondary level, enrollment increased in Europe by 10 percent and by 15 percent in Northern America.

At the postsecondary level, developing areas of the world also had substantial increases in enrollment between 1990 and 1997 (table 393 and figure 27). Postsecondary enrollment rose by 68 percent in Africa and by 49 percent in Asia. Postsecondary enrollment in Oceania increased by 99 percent, Central and South America increased by 30 percent, followed by Europe at 15 percent and Northern America at 3 percent (figure 27). These increases are due to growth both in the proportion of the people attending postsecondary institutions and increases in the populations.

Postsecondary enrollment varied among countries partially due to differing definitions of postsecondary education and at what age it begins (table 396). In 2002, the OECD countries with the highest proportion of 22- to 25-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education were Finland (39 percent), followed by the Republic of Korea (32 percent), Denmark (29 percent), Sweden (28 percent), Norway (27 percent), and Poland (26 percent). The U.S. had 25 percent.

In 200304, there were about 573,000 foreign students studying at U.S. colleges and universities (table 416). Fifty-seven percent of these students were from Asian countries. Between 1990 and 2002, the proportion of students at U.S. colleges who were nonresident aliens rose from 2.8 to 3.6 percent (table 206).



In 2003, U.S. fourth-grade students scored 518 in mathematics, on average, exceeding the international average of 495 for the 25 participating countries (table 401). U.S. fourth-graders were outperformed by their peers in 11 countries, including four Asian countries (Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, and Singapore) and seven European countries (Flemish Belgium, England, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, and the Russian Federation). On the other hand, U.S. fourth-graders outscored students in 13 countries. In 2003, U.S. eighth-grade students scored 504 in mathematics, on average, exceeding the international average of 467 for the 45 participating countries (table 402). U.S. eighth-graders were outperformed by their peers in nine countries, including five Asian countries (Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong SAR, Japan, Korea, and Singapore) and four European countries (Belgium-Flemish, Estonia, Hungary, and the Netherlands). On the other hand, U.S. eighth-graders outscored students in 25 countries.

In 2003, U.S. performance in mathematics literacy among 15-year-old students was lower than the average performance for 20 of the other 28 OECD countries (table 399). In problem solving, U.S. performance was lower than 22 of the other 28 OECD countries. The U.S. average score in reading literacy was not measurably different from the OECD average and the U.S. score in science literacy was below the OECD average.


Ratios of bachelor's degrees conferred per hundred persons at the typical year of graduation in 2002 ranged from 15 in the Czech Republic and 18 in Austria to 51 in Australia and 52 in Finland (table 411 and figure 28). The ratio for the United States was 36. In 1996, women had higher bachelor's degree ratios than men in 14 out of 19 countries reporting data.

The percentages of undergraduate degrees awarded in science fields (including natural sciences, mathematics and computer science, and engineering) reported by OECD countries ranged from 11 to 37 percent for 2002 (table 412). Czech Republic, Germany, Korea, Sweden and the United Kingdom were 30 percent or higher, while Denmark, Hungary, Iceland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland and the United States were 20 percent or less. The proportion of graduate degrees awarded in science fields also ranged widely across countries in 2002 (table 413). Among the countries with the highest proportions were Korea (48 percent), Japan (40 percent), Austria (40 percent), and Spain (37 percent). Among the countries with the lowest proportions were Poland (3 percent), Italy (10 percent), the Netherlands (12 percent), Hungary (12 percent), and the United States (13 percent).



At the elementary level of education, Luxembourg, Denmark, the United States, and Norway ranked at the upper end of public per pupil expenditures in 2001 (table 414). For elementary education per student, Luxembourg spent $7,873, Denmark spent $7,572 per student, the United States spent $7,560, and Norway spent $7,404. At the secondary level, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Norway, the United States, and Austria had expenditures over $8,500 per student. The United States, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway spent relatively large amounts per student in higher education. The United States spent $22,234, Switzerland spent $20,230, Sweden spent $15,188, Denmark spent $14,280, and Norway spent, $13,189. These expenditures were adjusted to U.S. dollars using the purchasing-power-parity (PPP) Index. This index is considered more stable and comparable than using currency exchange rates.

A comparison of public direct expenditures on education as a percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in OECD countries shows that national investment in education in 2001 ranged from 3.5 percent in Turkey and 3.5 percent in Japan to 6.3 percent in Sweden and 6.8 percent in Denmark (table 415 and figure 29). Among reporting countries, the average public investment in education in 2001 was 5.1 percent of GDP. In the United States, the public expenditure on education as a percent of GDP also was 5.1 percent. The percent of expenditures on education in the Russian Federation, a non-OECD country, was 3.0 percent.