PISA: U.S. is mediocre in reading, math, science

Compared to other developed countries, U.S. 15-year-olds are average in reading and science literacy and below average in math, according to study released today by PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), which is coordinated by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development).

PISA tries to measure the reading, math and scientific literacy skills and knowledge “essential for full participation in society.”

In reading, Shanghai, Korea, Finland, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia posted the highest scores with the U.S. in the middle, tied with  Iceland and Poland. The U.S. had average percentages of students scoring below level 2 (can’t find the main idea) and above level 4 (capable of critically evaluating a text) compared to other OECD countries.

In math, the U.S. was below average, on a par with Ireland and Portugal, but well below Korea, Finland and Switzerland. Top-scoring countries — and cities — included Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Finland and Switzerland.  The U.S. was similar to the OECD average in low-scoring students but had only 27 percent of students scored at or above level 4 compared to the 32 percent for the OECD average.

In science literacy, the U.S. matched the OECD average for both low-scoring and high-scoring students.  The usual suspects — Asian countries plus Finland and New Zealand– topped the charts.

U.S. scores for white and Asian-American students were above the OECD average, as were scores for students attending low-poverty schools.  Girls scored higher in reading but lower in math and science literacy.

Does it matter? Some argue the U.S. has more high-scoring students — because we have more people than Korea, Singapore, Finland or New Zealand — so it doesn’t matter if our students’ average performance can’t match the high flyers’ performance.

Eighteen percent of U.S. students scored poorly in reading and science and 23 percent scored poorly in math.  On the other end of the scale, 30 percent of U.S. students scored 4 or better in reading, 27 percent did well in math and 29 percent were strong in science literacy.  Can we afford to write off 18 to 23 percent of the population and rely on the top 27 to 30 percent?

The report is “an absolute wake-up call for America,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

“Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States,” a report by the National Center on Education and the Economy, looks at the education systems in top performers, such as Finland, Singapore, Japan and Canada, and fast improvers, such as China and Poland.

Though there are many differences between Finland and Singapore, for example, NCEE president Marc Tucker pointed to commonalities, including “clear, rigorous standards for what students should know” closely tied to a curriculum aligned with “high-quality assessments that measure complex, higher-order thinking.”  Students don’t move on till they demonstrate they’ve mastered the curriculum.

The top performing systems ensure that they get high quality teachers by aggressively raising the standards to get into pre-service teacher education programs, concentrating teacher education in major universities, raising teacher pay (U.S. teachers’ pay is very low compared to the top performing countries), providing prospective teachers with the skills they need to diagnose student problems early on and prescribing the appropriate remedies, raising the standards to enter the teaching force, providing new recruits with master teachers who can mentor them, and creating career ladders for master teachers that will enable them to earn at high levels and stay in teaching.

“While many Americans believe that other countries get better results because those countries educate only a few, while the United States educates everyone, that turns out not to be true,” NCEE concludes. Compared to the U.S., most top-performing countries do a better job of educating students from low-income families.

About Joanne


  1. The educational establishment seems to be less and less interested in the top end of the ability/effort curve; evidenced by mainstreaming, full inclusion, differentiated instruction, heterogeneous grouping and reduction/elimination of ES-MS honors and gifted programs. Those kids will do well on the state tests (which typically are so weak as to be meaningless) and “they don’t deserve any special programs because they’ll do fine anyway.” However, they won’t attain their potential without help and neither will the average-hardworking kids. If the top two thirds was given the resources the lower third (including the most severe spec ed and the least motivated) gets, it would really soar.

  2. This is an example of setting the bar so low for achievement that everyone can clear it (instead of the old school method of subject matter expertise and knowledge based learning). As a result, we now have the educational system (since the upholding of Plyler vs Texas in 1982) that we americans deserve.

  3. Unless there’s evidence that Finland, Singapore, etc take the same type of kids we struggle with and raise them to the top, this remains a population problem, not an education problem.

  4. Cranberry says:

    Yeah! We’re mediocre! WooHoo!

    On a more serious note, Massachusetts is at the top of the charts in most national comparisons. There is no support for gifted programs on the state level, most school systems don’t track in elementary education, and allow only limited tracking (mostly in math) in middle school.

    I think there is a link between a lack of gifted programs and good state results. I think the splitting of the student body into “gifted” and “non-gifted” harms the overall performance. It lowers expectations for the non-gifted, and it concentrates the attention of the “gifted” parents on the gifted programs.

    As my children would be considered gifted in other states (based on test results), I’m not personally overjoyed to notice this. On the other hand, I think there is an argument to be made that most schools should focus their efforts on educating the norm well, rather than focusing on the outliers. The outliers should be allowed to seek out magnet, charter, or private schools, which can craft curricula to fit their student bodies.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    As far as I know (I am a Massachusetts teacher), most Massachusetts high schools have “honors” and “college” (or “college 1” and “college 2”) versions of their courses.

    I hate the “gifted” label because it puts the emphasis on what you start out with rather than what you do, but I would love to see more interesting versions of courses for those who work hard and show interest.

  6. Roger, yes, but placement into “honors” and “college” isn’t decided by surpassing a threshold on an IQ test. Honors courses are often seen as a precursur to the AP courses, so their course content is determined by the need to prepare students for the higher-level course. “College” levels are often described as covering the “honors” course material, but with less depth. In other words, it’s not two different curricula, but the same general material with different degrees of rigor.

    I know of some high schools in Massachusetts which don’t offer honors courses in certain academic areas, generally in the humanities. They are held to be good schools.

  7. scrooge mcduck says:

    Unless there’s evidence that Finland, Singapore, etc take the same type of kids we struggle with and raise them to the top, this remains a population problem, not an education problem.

    I’m glad that’s settled. Someone better tell Hanushek and Peterson:


  8. Roger Sweeny says:

    I hate–hate, hate, hate, hate, hate–programs that single out a group of people and say you are special, you are different, you are better, you are “gifted” and “talented.” (Truth be told, I also hate programs that single out a group of people and say you are special, you are different, you have “non-specific learning disabilities.”) I love programs that say, “You are interested in these things. You have done well in the past. We’d like you to do more.”

    You are absolutely right that “college” level courses generally cover much of the “honors” material but with less depth and rigor. Inevitably, this means that the “college” kids do less than the “honors” kids.

  9. CarolineSF says:

    However, all the nations that are supposedly kicking our butts track students vigorously — a mega-form of tracking that impacts their entire school careers and really their entire lives. In a vacuum, I would be unsure how to view tracking myself, but when we’re in a discussion about high-performing nations, it seems a little unclear on the concept to claim that the solution is to do the exact opposite of what they do.

    Not only that — none of them starve their public schools for funds. None of their national leaders attack and disparage their school systems. All of them respect and professionalize teachers rather than attacking, demeaning and blaming them, and espousing replacing them with inexperienced temps who had a quickie crash course in How To Be A Teacher.

    So can someone explain to me why it is that the Reformy Ones want to do the exact opposite of what those nations do in their educational system?

  10. The gifted program I attended in elementary schools probably saved me from becoming a PITA student. Our school had a self-guided computer instruction program in math and reading that is used to supplement normal classroom teaching. I never saw a math lesson that I hadn’t already mastered until 7th grade, when I was moved up two years in math.

    If I had sat through every single lesson in elementary school that my peers had to I would have likely become frustrated and acted out and/or given up. Being able to leave the classroom on a daily basis to discuss oceanography or build and program LEGO Technic robots kept me interested and actually learning in school.

    Some kids are gifted and talented. In academics they are superior. Taking away a student’s ability to actually be challenged and to learn in school out of fear of offending some parents is misguided.

    That being said, admission to G&T programs should not be about connections, wealth, or test prep, which many unfortunately become.

  11. Spending on G&T programs, or programs which only the very best students qualify for amounts for less than 3% of all education spending nationally. On the other hand, spending on the other end of the spectrum comes out to approximately 10 times that amount (i’m not begrudging anyone’s education, but as a rule, it has always cost schools and taxpayers more to education the students on the bottom end of the bel curve).

    I know several teachers and have taught at the college level myself, and from what I can see, you have to practically do no work to flunk a class, and if you exert a small to medium amount of effort, you can get at least an average grade.

  12. I don’t know the tracking policies of all the high-performing countries, though I think Canada’s policies, set at the provincial level, are comparable to U.S. policies. Korea doesn’t track students. Finland doesn’t track in K-8 but offers academic or vocational high school programs. I think Singapore is similar. Not sure on New Zealand, but I think they don’t track. China’s quality schools are open to the top 20 percent of students (or to those with political connections). Urban schools are much better than rural schools.

    Education reformers differ in their views of tracking and of offering a career-tech option in high school. I think there’s a strong case for offering career programs, if the quality is high enough to give students choices when they leave high school.

    As for people criticizing the schools, it’s very common around the world, though more common in countries that see their schools slipping in international comparisons.

  13. Crimson Wife says:

    Massachusetts is pretty good at getting students to “proficiency” but lags at getting students to the “advanced” level. It’s simply not a priority for the schools, which are much more focused on helping below-average learners than on helping above-average ones.

    I’m against traditional tracking but do believe that students should be grouped by where they are in the curriculum instead of by age. All children should go through the same rigorous curriculum but at a different rate.

  14. Joanne,

    While having a career track option is a good idea (worked 30 years ago when I was in high school), the career field is quite a bit different today compared to 30 years ago. Many students wouldn’t be able to succeed in career tracks (IMO) due to poor skills in reading, writing, and math.

    As the service manager at a local dealership told me a few years ago, he wants to hire persons who know how to analyze, diagnose, and troubleshoot (anyone can swap out parts, it takes more to diagnose a tough problem), and the ASE certification exams aren’t easy by any means.

    Same goes for electrical tracks, 80% of students who apply to electricians school aren’t accepted due to poor math skills.

    Firefighting even requires math, and you’ll never be promoted to Engineer (drive the truck and work the pumps) without a solid knowledge of algebra (how much water can I deliver to the fire, how much pressure can be sent so I don’t knock the guys holding the line on the other end flat on their can, etc).

    Career options today sound like a good thing, but without solid knowledge of the basics, many students will be setup for failure (IMO).

  15. When I taught Algebra, the kids who couldn’t “get it” were the kids who’d never become fluent at addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals.

    Our current strategy seems to be to put the kids who haven’t mastered 4th grade math into 8th grade math, and then to wonder why the middle school teachers can’t teach them.

    The answer isn’t more academics in Kindergarten, however. The problem isn’t that we’re not teaching long enough–it’s that we’re not teaching it WELL.

    We need more drills, not less. We need to get out kids to the point where they don’t have to panic when they see 5 3/4 + 6 7/9 …… They need to learn the algorithms.

    Once they have the algorothms down, we can teach them the harder stuff– and maybe turn out decent mechanics and electricians!

  16. Certainly, these results of mediocrity, in which Americans are so completely average, are disturbing. And there is no doubt that American schools are lacking the rigor and effective instruction that many Finnish and South Korean schools exemplify. Much of this has to do with the entitlement of public education here, and a lot has to do with the conflict of skills versus effort that I mentioned in a previous post. Certainly, there is much we can and should do. Yet I am always suspicious of standardized test evaluations, knowing many American students asked to take the test simply don’t take it seriously. My experience is the our best still compete with the best in the world, and even if they trail in test scores at fifteen, our top students are still turning into top doctors, engineers, scientists, inventors, businessmen/women, humanitarians, activists, parents, neighbors, and citizens.

  17. Does anyone know of to what extent other countries, especially the high-scoring ones, allow their most serverely handicapped kids to enter school at all and to what extent the next group above them are in regular schools? The mainstreaming and full inclusion here has had a real impact on the classroom, both in behavior and in curriculum and instruction.

  18. Deirdre,

    A math teacher who hit the nail squarely on the head with your posting. The students who always struggle with Algebra are the ones who haven’t mastered the basics, and without a working knowledge of fractions, they’ll never make it past Algebra I (much less calculus). My old algebra teacher always used to say we had no problems doing algebra, we just didn’t add/subtract/multiply/divide properly (haha).

    Addition and subtraction of fractions is quite easy, and can be demonstrated with something as tasty as cake, pie, or even an orange or apple, and it’s not hard to show kids adding 1/4 and 1/4 gives you 1/2 (and not 2/8ths), etc.

    Alas, the overuse of calculators (starting in 2nd grade) along with insane new methods of teaching math basics (everyday mathematics) has crippled the math ability of students over the last 20 years or so.

  19. Is PISA “a Sputnik wake-up” or are international comparisons invalid. Rather than wade into that debate, I’d rather look more closely at the questions in the PISA test and what student responses tell us about American education. You can put international comparisons aside for that analysis.

    Are American students able to analyze, reason and communicate their ideas effectively? Do they have the capacity to continue learning throughout life? Have schools been forced to sacrifice creative problem solving for “adequate yearly progress” on state tests?

    I focus on a sample PISA question that offers insights into what American students can (and cannot do) in my post “Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students” http://bit.ly/eChNoY

  20. Cranberry says:

    My experience is the our best still compete with the best in the world, and even if they trail in test scores at fifteen, our top students are still turning into top doctors, engineers, scientists, inventors, businessmen/women, humanitarians, activists, parents, neighbors, and citizens.

    I take it, you haven’t visited many research laboratories recently.

    “Our best” at the graduate level are often “the world’s best”, due to immigration, or at least visas. It remains to be seen if the US appeal last.

  21. Most of the skills tested on these exams test the “memorize and regurgitate” material, which is the common method of teaching in many countries, particularly Asia. These tests show many American students lack basic skills, but much of that problem is due to the large number of poor inner-city schools where the kids don’t try because their is no parental involvement in their studies and the schools are not safe. Improving those conditions would result in a rapid rise in scores, because the large numbers of underserved students who test poorly drag down the national average enormously. If you remove the “failing” schools, the rest of America’s schools rise to near the top.

    Besides, these tests do not measure work ethic, creativity, imagination, or artistic talent, nor do they measure innovation or students’ abilities to apply skills to the real world, areas in which America excels compared to most nations, given the increased focus in the United States on communicating effectively, evaluating ideas, applying concepts, and problem solving. Teachers flock to the US from Singapore and China to learn these techniques from American schools, and the Chinese hire Americans to teach them how to be more innovative and creative. The reason China isn’t kicking our butt in business is that while they may test better, they don’t have the innovation and creativity American companies have.

    The focus of education should be to 1) provide everyone with basic background skills and knowledge to allow them to function properly in any job, and to have enough background to switch careers if necessary (the career-track path used in countries like Germany makes it harder to change jobs if you’re laid off and/or don’t like your line of work), and then, in middle school or high school, shift towards 2) Figuring out students are best at and enjoy the most and steering them towards specialized, interdisciplinary education that prepares them to go into those fields. That way everyone will be good at what they do, and they still have the flexibility to change. We also need to 3) Make teaching more prestigious with better pay and conditions to attract better teachers. Most teachers graduate in the bottom 25% of their college class, and the worst teachers are sent to the worst schools, compounding the test score problem and achievement gap.

    One last note: There was an experiment performed where top-quality teachers were given low-achieving inner-city students, but they were told the students were gifted and at the top of their class. The test scores for those low achieving students shot up enormously that year because the teachers were tricked into pushing them harder.

  22. J. D. Salinger says:


    America’s penchant for creativity and innovation is not a function of the public school system. There are other factors at play. As far as your statement “If you remove the “failing” schools, the rest of America’s schools rise to near the top” please see http://educationnext.org/teaching-math-to-the-talented/

    Most of the skills tested on these exams test the “memorize and regurgitate” material, which is the common method of teaching in many countries, particularly Asia.

    Have you seen any of the math textbooks used overseas? Memorization is part of the process, yes, but the procedures are not taught in isolation of their application, nor their derivation.

  23. National math test scores continue to be disappointing. This poor trend persists in spite of new texts, standardized tests with attached implied threats, or laptops in the class. At some point, maybe we should admit that math, as it is taught currently and in the recent past, seems irrelevant to a large percentage of grade school kids.

    Why blame a sixth grade student or teacher trapped by meaningless lessons? Teachers are frustrated. Students check out.

    The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.

    A Trip To The Number Yard is a math book focusing on the building of a bungalow. Odd numbered chapters cover the phases of the project: lot layout, foundation, framing, all the way through until the trim out. The even numbered chapters introduce the math needed for the next stage of building and/or reviews the previous lessons.

    This type of project-oriented math engages kids. It is fun. They have a reason to learn the math they may have ignored in the standard lecture format of a class room.

    If we really want kids to learn math and to have the lessons be valuable, we need to change the mode of teaching. Our kids can master the math that most adults need. We can’t continue to have class rooms full of math drudges. Instead, we need to change our teaching tactics with real life projects.

    Alan Cook
    [email protected]

  24. The missing element is reality. Instead of insisting that students learn another sixteen formulae, we need to involve them in tangible life projects. And the task must be interesting.


    For some kids.

    My kid (who does not seem to be a math whiz) finds math moderately interesting all on its own. He just likes to learn stuff.

    Creating an artificial “real” context won’t help him a bit, and may well be a negative.

  25. Mark Johnson says:

    Here in the middle class suburbs of Chicago, my experience as a parent has been as follows. Students identified as “gifted” or requiring “special services” (IEP) get lots of attention. Other than that, it is hit or miss. Teachers have a lot of power due to the Teacher Unions. Same school, same grade, one teacher can “believe” in homework and assign lots, another teacher does “not believe” in homework and assigns little. Both teachers get paid the same. Teachers, Parents, Students, & Administrators know of teachers who are not doing a quality job, but if those teachers have tenure, they remain employed at the same pay rate as the better teacher. In fact, if the poor quality teacher gets a masters or phd and the better quality teacher does not, the poor quality teacher gets paid more! The union contract mandates how many minutes before and after school the teacher has to be present. Teachers typically get 6% annual increase the last 3-4 years prior to retirement (18%-24% total increase) and administrators typically get 10% annual increase the last 3-4 years prior to retirement (30 – 40% total increase). There is absolutely no criteria other than the fact that you have submitted your retirement papers and maintain satisfactory employment. Kindergarten teachers are retiring with $75,000 pensions. Administrators are retiring with $200,000 pensions, then getting a job in another state while continuing to draw their pension. The teachers and administrators pension contributions do not come close to funding the pension, the Illinois legislature and Governor fails to fund the remaining, the Pension Fund makes poor investment decisions (risky credit default swaps, etc), and the result is Illinois has one of the worst funded teacher pensions in the country, so Governor Quinn proproses increasing taxes. The unions helped destroy the automotive sector (they certainly had help from management and the accountants) and they are helping to destroy the public education (not surprisingly assisted by spineless politicians caving into union demands). The local school district unions are part of state, national, and even worldwide unions, their power is immense. In Illinois and some other states, teacher unions can strike. Your average Illinois employee not in a union is at-will and can be fired for any reason or no reason at all. The nice sweet compentent teacher does exist and can be found, but the system as a whole is dysfunctional. Schools are mandated by law to teach anyone living in the district, be it an illegal immigrants, some of which don’t pay taxes or speak English, plus foreign students that we rescue from poverty and may not speak English. And that is not even talking about the inner city youths, many which deal with crime in their communities, and a whole host of issues in their families (poverty, substance abuse, verbal abuse, emotional abuse). Add to this mix the PAC hired by the unions who lobby state and federal legislators. Ever try to track how much money a PAC donates to your state legislators. One PAC could donate under a whole host of acronyms. So while we are trying to educate children, what we have to deal with are Teacher Unions, Pension Funds, Political Action Committees, Teachers, Administrators, School Boards, and Politicians at the Local, State, and Federal levels. It’s a mess.