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Digest of Education Statistics: 2008
Digest of Education Statistics: 2008

NCES 2009-020
March 2009

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 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 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA), and the Institute of International Education (IIE). 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 of the world (see the 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 IEA and supported by NCES and the National Science Foundation. This survey was formerly known as the Third International Mathematics and Science Study. TIMSS, conducted every 4 years, is an assessment of fourth- and eighth-graders in mathematics and science. In 1995, TIMSS collected data for both grade 4 and grade 8. In 1999, TIMSS collected data for grade 8 only. With the 2003 data collection, TIMSS offers the first international trend comparisons in mathematics and science at grades 4 and 8. In 2003, the United States and a number of other countries participated in data collection at one or both 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 IIE provides estimates of the number of foreign students and their countries of origin.

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

Population

Among the reporting OECD countries in 2005, Mexico had the largest percentage of its population made up of young people ages 5 to 14 (21 percent), followed by Turkey (19 percent) (table 400). Countries with relatively small percentages of people in this age group included Italy, Japan, and Spain (all at 9 percent) and the Czech Republic, Germany, Greece, and Portugal (all at 10 percent). In the United States, the proportion of 5- to 14-year-olds was 14 percent, which was higher than in most of the other OECD countries.

Enrollments

In 2005, about 1.3 billion students were enrolled in schools around the world (table 398). Of these students, 693 million were in elementary-level programs, 511 million were in secondary programs, and 138 million were in postsecondary programs. Between 1990 and 2005, enrollment changes varied from region to region. Changes in elementary enrollment ranged from increases of 68 percent in Africa, 16 percent in Oceania, 15 percent in Asia, and 8 percent in Northern America (defined in UNESCO tabulations as including the United States, Canada, Greenland, Bermuda, St. Pierre, and Miquelon) to a 22 percent decrease in Europe and a 9 percent decrease in Central and South America (figure 26). Over the same period, enrollment increases at the secondary level outpaced increases at the elementary level. At the secondary level, enrollments increased by 164 percent in Central and South America, 97 percent in Africa, 86 percent in Oceania, 70 percent in Asia, 27 percent in Northern America, and 2 percent in Europe.

At the postsecondary level, developing areas of the world also had increases in enrollment between 1990 and 2005 (table 398 and figure 26). Postsecondary enrollment rose by 191 percent in Africa, 169 percent in Asia, 106 percent in Oceania, 114 percent in Central and South America, 68 percent in Europe, and 19 percent in Northern America (figure 26). These increases are due to both growth in the percentages of people attending postsecondary institutions and increases in the total populations in these regions.

In 2005, the reporting OECD countries with the highest proportions of 22- to 25-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education were Finland (40 percent), followed by Denmark (34 percent), the Republic of Korea and Sweden (both at 32 percent), and Norway and Poland (both at 30 percent) (table 401). The United States' proportion of enrolled 22- to 25- year-olds was 23 percent. Also in 2005, the reporting OECD countries with the highest proportions of 18- to 21-year-olds enrolled in postsecondary education were Greece and the Republic of Korea (both at 65 percent), followed by the United States (45 percent), and Flemish Belgium (43 percent). Postsecondary enrollment varied among countries due partially to differences in how postsecondary education is defined and the age at which postsecondary education begins. For example, programs classified as postsecondary education in some countries may be classified as long-duration secondary education in other countries.

In 2006–07, there were about 583,000 foreign students studying at U.S. colleges and universities (table 420). Fiftynine percent of these students were from Asian countries. Between 1990 and 2006, the proportion of students at U.S. colleges who were nonresident aliens rose from 2.8 to 3.4 percent (table 226).

Achievement

On the 2003 TIMSS assessment, U.S. fourth-grade students scored 518, on average, in mathematics, exceeding the international average of 495 for the 25 participating educational systems (table 406). (Average scale scores from the TIMSS assessment are based on a range of possible scores from 0 to 1,000. Most participating educational systems represent countries; however, some represent subnational entities with separate educational systems, such as Hong Kong, SAR.1) U.S. fourth-graders were outperformed by their peers in 11 educational systems, including 4 Asian educational systems (Chinese Taipei; Hong Kong, SAR; Japan; and Singapore) and 7 European educational systems (Flemish Belgium, England, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and the Russian Federation). On the other hand, U.S. fourth-graders outscored students in 13 educational systems. In 2003, U.S. eighth-grade students scored 504 in mathematics, on average, exceeding the international average of 467 for the 45 participating educational systems (table 407). U.S. eighth-graders were outperformed by their peers in 9 educational systems, including 5 Asian educational systems (Chinese Taipei; Hong Kong, SAR; Japan; the Republic of Korea; and Singapore) and 4 European educational systems (Flemish Belgium, Estonia, Hungary, and the Netherlands). On the other hand, U.S. eighth-graders outscored students in 25 educational systems.

On the 2006 PISA, the average score of U.S. 15-year-olds in mathematics literacy was 474, which was lower than the OECD average of 498 (table 403). (Possible scores on PISA assessments range from 0 to 1,000.) The average mathematics literacy score in the United States was lower than the average score in 23 of the other 29 OECD countries for which comparable PISA results were reported, higher than the average score in 4 of the other OECD countries, and not measurably different from the average score in 2 of the OECD countries. Comparable mathematics literacy results were also reported for 27 non-OECD jurisdictions, 8 of which had higher average scores than did the United States. In science literacy, the average score of 15-year-olds in the United States was lower than the average score in 16 of the other 29 OECD countries, higher than the average score in 5 of the other OECD countries, and not measurably different from the average score in 8 of the OECD countries. In 6 of the 27 non-OECD jurisdictions, the science literacy scores of 15-year-olds were higher than the average score in the United States. PISA 2006 reading literacy results were not reported for the United States because of an error in printing the test booklets (for more information, please refer to footnote 3 on table 403 and to the PISA publication cited in the table's source note).

Degrees

In OECD countries, ratios of bachelor's degrees conferred per 100 people at the typical age of graduation in 2005 ranged from 11 in Turkey and 15 in Mexico to 56 in Iceland and 60 in Australia (table 415 and figure 27). The ratio for the United States was 34 degrees per 100 people. In 2005, women had higher bachelor's degree ratios than men in 25 of the 28 OECD countries reporting data.

The percentages of undergraduate degrees awarded in mathematics and science fields—including natural sciences, mathematics and computer science, and engineering—varied across the 28 reporting OECD countries in 2005 (table 416). Three of the reporting OECD countries awarded at least 30 percent of their undergraduate degrees in mathematics and science fields: the Republic of Korea (37 percent), Germany (31 percent), and Finland (30 percent). Four of the countries awarded 15 percent or less of their undergraduate degrees in these fields: Hungary (11 percent), Iceland (14 percent), Norway (14 percent), and the Netherlands (15 percent). In 2005, the United States awarded 17 percent of its undergraduate degrees in mathematics and science fields, a lower percentage than most other reporting countries. The percentages of graduate degrees awarded in mathematics and science fields also ranged widely across countries in 2005 (table 417). Nine of the reporting OECD countries awarded at least 30 percent of their graduate degrees in mathematics and science fields: the Republic of Korea (44 percent), Greece (43 percent), Austria (39 percent), Spain (38 percent), the Slovak Republic (37 percent), Portugal (34 percent), Switzerland (32 percent), Germany (31 percent), and Finland (30 percent). Four OECD countries awarded 15 percent or less of their graduate degrees in mathematics and science fields: Hungary (6 percent), Poland (9 percent), the United States (13 percent), and Mexico (15 percent).

Finances

In 2005, per student expenditures at the elementary level of education were at least $7,500 in eight OECD countries (table 418). Specifically, Luxembourg spent $14,100 per student at the elementary level, Iceland $9,300, the United States $9,200, Norway $9,000, Denmark $8,500, Switzerland $8,500, Austria $8,300, and Sweden $7,500. At the secondary level, six countries had expenditures of over $9,000 per student: Luxembourg ($18,800), Switzerland ($12,900), Norway ($11,000), the United States ($10,400), Austria ($9,800), and Denmark ($9,400). At the higher education level, the following seven countries had expenditures of at least $14,000 per student in 2005: the United States ($24,400), Switzerland ($21,700), Sweden ($15,900), Norway ($15,600), Denmark ($15,000), Austria ($14,800), and Australia ($14,600). These expenditures were adjusted to U.S. dollars using the purchasing-power-parity (PPP) index. This index is considered more stable and comparable than indexes using currency exchange rates.

A comparison of public direct expenditures on education as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP) in reporting OECD countries shows that national investment in education in 2005 ranged from 3.4 percent in Japan and 3.7 percent in the Slovak Republic to 6.8 percent in Denmark and 7.2 percent in Iceland (table 419 and figure 28). Among reporting OECD countries, the average public investment in education in 2005 was 5.0 percent of GDP. In the United States, the public expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP was 4.8 percent.


1 Hong Kong, SAR is a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People's Republic of China.

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