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US ranked 25th out of 34 in International Math Test

December 7, 2010

From Bloomberg:

Teens in U.S. Rank 25th on Math Test, Trail in Science, Reading

By John Hechinger – Dec 7, 2010 4:00 AM CT

Fifteen-year-old students in the U.S. ranked 25th of 34 countries on an international math test and scored in the middle of the pack in science and reading, raising concerns the U.S. isn’t prepared to succeed in the global economy.

Teenagers from South Korea and Finland led in almost all academic categories on the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment, according to the Paris-based Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which represents 34 countries. U.S. students ranked 17th in science and 14th in reading. The U.S. government considers the OECD test one of the most comprehensive measures of international achievement.

The results show that U.S. students must improve to compete in a global economy, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said yesterday in a telephone interview. The Obama administration is promoting national curriculum standards and a revamping of teacher pay that stresses performance, rather than credentials and seniority.

“The brutal fact here is there are many countries that are far ahead of us and improving more rapidly than we are,” Duncan said. “This should be a massive wakeup call to the entire country.”

The OECD’s international test, first administered in 2000 and given every three years, aims to measure skills achieved near the end of compulsory schooling. In the U.S., 165 public and private schools and 5,233 students participated in the two- hour paper-and-pencil assessment, given in September and November 2009. It consisted of multiple-choice and open-response questions.

Shanghai Region

In all, 470,000 students worldwide took the exam. The test also measured countries and regions outside the OECD, or a total of 65 countries and economies. For the first time, the test broke out the performance of China’s Shanghai region, which topped even Finland and South Korea.

U.S. 15-year-olds had an average score of 487 in math, below the OECD average of 496 on a zero to 1,000-point scale. South Korean students scored 546 and those from Finland scored 541. On an absolute basis, students from 24 of 34 OECD countries had higher scores than U.S. students, though the Education Department said 17 were better on a statistically significant basis.

U.S. math scores rose from 474 in 2006, when they ranked 25th of 30 OECD countries.

The average U.S. reading score of 500 ranked 14th among OECD countries, which were led by South Korea, Finland and Canada. Only six had scores that were better statistically, the Education Department said. Because of an error in printing test booklets, no U.S. reading results were reported in 2006.

Heterogeneous Population

The average U.S. science score of 502 ranks 17th in the OECD, which were led by Finland, Japan and South Korea. Twelve scores were statistically better, the Education Department said. The U.S., which scored 489 in 2006, ranked 21st among 30 OECD countries that year.

The U.S. faces educational challenges from its immigrant and heterogeneous population, an OECD report said. In contrast with the U.S., Finland benefited from the country’s relative cultural homogeneity, the report said.

While the U.S. is wealthier than most of its OECD peers and its parents are better educated, the country lags behind better- performing nations, partly because it fails to put the most talented teachers in the most challenging classrooms, Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the test for OECD, said in a telephone interview.

Policy Lessons

The success of top-scoring education systems holds lessons for U.S. policy, notwithstanding cultural differences, the report said. Successful countries provide comparable opportunities to all students, regardless of wealth, offer autonomy to individual schools in terms of curriculum and prioritize teacher pay over smaller classes, according to the report.

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates on Nov. 19 urged top U.S. public-school officials to overhaul teacher pay, saying instructors should be rewarded for results, not seniority or advanced degrees. Gates, whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation funds education programs, said the U.S. may also find money for merit pay by increasing class size. Duncan has also endorsed that approach.

“Great teachers and great principals elevate the entire profession,” Duncan said yesterday. “There are huge lessons we can learn from countries that are both doing better than we are and improving more rapidly.”

To contact the reporter on this story: John Hechinger in Boston at;

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jonathan Kaufman at

One Comment leave one →
  1. Leslie permalink
    March 3, 2011 8:19 am

    After reading this,I looked up some information on the education system in Finland. In particular, I was interested in math education. What I found surprized me in that math is not a math is not an area that holds much interest for the students in Finland. In the article I read (Mathematics education in Finland-what makes it work? by Ole Bjorkquevist) several reasons for the success of these students are sited. One of those reasons, also mentioned here, is the heterogeneous nature of the population.
    The reason I found most interesting, however, was the focus on reading and problem solving. I think that the importance of reading in mathematics is often overlooked. I work with students that have difficulty in mathematics and I often find that much of the problem lies more with their ability to read for information than in their understanding of the mathematics.
    As a secondary mathematics teacher I was never trained to teach my students how to read a problem. I was trained in how to teach them math content. Maybe we need to consider whether it is more important to have an extensive mathematical background or whether we should focus on how to teach what our weakest students struggle with.

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