Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the results a “picture of educational stagnation” as U.S. students showed little improvement over three years, failing to score in the top 20 on math, reading or science.
Students in Shanghai, China’s largest city, had the top scores in all subjects, and Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong students weren’t far behind. Even Vietnam, where students participated for the first time, had a higher average score in math and science than the United States.
These results again raise the question of whether the U.S. is consistently outperformed because of the widely varied backgrounds of its students. Some are from low-income households, for example. Others don’t have English as their primary language. “Americans have got a thousand reasons that one country after another is surpassing our achievement and I have yet to find a good excuse,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy.
About half a million students in 65 nations and educational systems took part in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.
Most results come from a sampling of scores from countries as a whole, but in China it was given in select regions.
The Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics released the results. The test, given every three years to 15-year-olds, is designed to assess students’ problem-solving skills. U.S. scores on the PISA haven’t changed much since testing started in 2000, even as students in countries such as Ireland and Poland have shown improvement and surpassed U.S. students.
Duncan joined British voices in calling for an increased focus on education. “We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators,” he said.
Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, cautions about reading too much into the results from Shanghai, which also dominated the test in 2009. The students tested are children of the elite. They are the ones allowed to attend municipal schools because of restrictions such as those that keep many migrant children out, he said. But Tucker said Shanghai has worked hard to bring migrant children into its schools and has put an emphasis on improving teacher quality – a factor helping to drive its test scores.
Overall, National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said, among the Asian nations dominating the test, “The one thing they all have in common is that they make a real commitment to education for all kids and nothing deters them from that vision, and then they do what’s necessary to make that happen. In the United States, we don’t have the commitment for all kids and it needs to change.”
One indicator of performance is how many students hit a high benchmark on each subject tested. In the U.S., 9 percent of test-takers hit that mark in math, 7 percent did so in science and 8 percent did in reading. Fewer U.S. test-takers hit that mark in math than the international average. However, they performed at about the international average in the other two subjects.
The test is based on a 1,000-point scale. Among the findings are:
• In math, the U.S. average score was 481. Average scores ranged from 368 in Peru to 613 in Shanghai. The international average was 494.
• In science, the U.S. average score was 497. Average scores ranged from 373 in Peru to 580 in Shanghai. The international average was 501.
• In reading, the U.S. average score was 498. Average scores ranged from 384 in Peru to 570 in Shanghai. The international average was 496.
Students from all states were tested. But, for the first time, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida opted to increase participation in PISA to get more state specific results.
Average scores from Massachusetts were above the international average in all three subject areas. Connecticut’s scored on average around the international average in math and higher than the international average in science and reading. Florida students on average scored below the international average in math and science and around the international average in reading.