American Schools vs. the World: Expensive, Unequal, Bad at Math

What the latest results of an international test tell us about the state of education in the United States
Joerg Sarbach/AP Photo

The U.S. education system is mediocre compared to the rest of the world, according to an international ranking of OECD countries.

More than half a million 15-year-olds around the world took the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2012. The test, which is administered every three years and focuses largely on math, but includes minor sections in science and reading, is often used as a snapshot of the global state of education. The results, published today, show the U.S. trailing behind educational powerhouses like Korea and Finland.

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Not much has changed since 2000, when the U.S. scored along the OECD average in every subject: This year, the U.S. scores below average in math and ranks 17th among the 34 OECD countries. It scores close to the OECD average in science and reading and ranks 21st in science and 17th in reading.

Here are some other takeaways from the report:

America Is Struggling at Math

 The U.S. scored below the PISA math mean and ranks 26th out of the 34 OECD countries. The U.S. math score is not statistically different than the following countries: Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Lithuania, Sweden, and Hungary.

On average, 13 percent of students scored at the highest or second highest level on the PISA test, making them “top performers.” Fifty-five percent of students in Shanghai-China were considered top performers, while only nine percent of American students were.

One in four U.S. students did not reach the PISA baseline level 2 of mathematics proficiency. At this level, “students begin to demonstrate the skills that will enable them to participate effectively and productively in life,” according to the PISA report.

Even the top students in the United States are behind: This year, the PISA report offered regional scores for Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Florida. Massachusetts, which is a high-achieving U.S. state and which averaged above the national PISA score, is still two years of formal schooling behind Shanghai.

America Spends a Lot of Money Per Student

The U.S. ranks fifth in spending per student. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland spend more per student. To put this in context: the Slovak Republic, which scores similarly to the U.S., spends $53,000 per student. The U.S. spends $115,000. The PISA report notes that, among OECD countries, “higher expenditure on education is not highly predictive of better mathematics scores in PISA.”

Socio-Economic Class Plays a Larger Role in the U.S. Than in Other Countries

Fifteen percent of the American score variation is explained by socio-economic differences between students. Less than 10 percent of score variation in Finland, Hong Kong, Japan, and Norway is due to socio-economic differences.

The U.S. also has a lower than average number of “resilient students,” which PISA defines as “students who are among the 25 percent most socio-economically disadvantaged students but perform much better than would be predicted by their socio-economic class.” On average, seven percent of students are considered resilient. Thirteen percent of of students in Korea, Hong Kong, Macao-China, Shanghai-China, Singapore, and Vietnam are “resilient.”

The Countries That Are Doing Well 

Parts of China, Singapore, Japan, Korea, and Liechtenstein topped the rankings for math, reading, and science. Finland, which is often pointed to as an example of an excellent school system, continued to perform well. However, the country dropped 2.8 points in math, 1.7 points in reading, and three points in science in “annualized changes in score points,” which are the “average annual change in PISA score points since the country’s earliest participation in PISA.”

The biggest annualized score improvements came from Brazil, Tunisia, Mexico, Turkey, and Portugal. Italy, Poland, and Germany also showed gains since 2003.

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How seriously should we take these dismal findings? Educators around the world have called for tempered reactions to the PISA scores and questioned the usefulness of the tests. Nevertheless, this year’s report—and the United States’ poor math results—may be worth paying attention to for at least one reason. A 2011 study found that PISA scores are an economic indicator: rising scores are a good sign that a country’s economy will grow as well.

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Julia Ryan is a former producer for TheAtlantic.com.

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