U.S. Performance Up on International Tests, but Still Lags Global Leaders

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Results from the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) show the United States is increasing its achievement in reading, math, and science. But while U.S. students perform above the international averages in these subjects, they continue to lag behind students in some other advanced economies, especially their peers in East Asian nations. For instance, fourth-graders in Singaporean schools that, according to principals, serve primarily economically disadvantaged students, outperformed in math U.S. fourth-graders attending schools that primarily serve advantaged students. Test results also show that, despite narrowing in some subjects, gaps between groups of American students remain unconscionably wide.

Both TIMSS and PIRLS (click here for slides or scroll to the bottom of the page) assess student performance internationally, with TIMSS focusing on math and science performance among students in fourth and eighth grades, and PIRLS on reading performance among fourth-graders. In 2011, more than 50 nations and education systems participated in each of the assessments, ranging from advanced economies like the United States and many European nations to less developed economies like Tunisia, Iran, and Malaysia.

Among fourth-graders, the U.S. generally ranks in the top third to top quarter of advanced economies participating in these assessments. For example, U.S. fourth-graders rank fifth of 27 advanced economies in reading. In eighth grade, however, U.S. students are roughly in the middle of the pack compared with students in other advanced economies. In general, East Asian students — from Singapore, Hong Kong, Korea, Chinese Taipei, and Japan — were the top performers in math and science.

Students from Finland and Slovenia also performed among the top countries in science, and Flemish Belgium and Northern Ireland did so in fourth-grade math. Several East Asian systems, along with Finland, were the top performers in reading.

Since the first TIMSS, administered in 1995, the U.S. average scores have increased in fourth- and eighth-grade math, as well as in eighth-grade science. Fourth-grade math scores for U.S. students on TIMSS have increased by 23 points. That is near the 22-point average gain for advanced economies, but behind the improvement of such top gainers as Portugal (which saw its scores rise by 90 points), England (58 points), Slovenia (51 points), and Hong Kong (45 points).

On PIRLS, U.S. performance has increased by 14 points since 2001 — above the nine-point average gain for advanced economies, but below the gains of such systems as Hong Kong (43 points), Singapore (39 points), and Slovenia (29 points). The finding that American students’ performance is increasing aligns with results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which also show improvement in student performance over similar time periods. Still, this improvement is not universal. U.S. TIMSS scores in fourth-grade science have remained flat since 1995, for example. And in eighth-grade science, scores have not risen since 2007.

America’s students of color and students in high-poverty schools showed large gains on TIMSS and PIRLS in several subjects. Between 2007 and 2011, for example, science scores for Latino and African-American eighth-graders rose by 13 and 15 points, compared with two points for white students. Among fourth-grade students attending the highest poverty schools, science scores rose by 24 points, compared with 14 points for those in the lowest poverty schools. And in fourth-grade math, scores for Latino students rose by 16 points between 2007 and 2011, compared with an increase of nine points for their white peers. These gains have helped to narrow gaps between groups across the nation slightly, but Latino students still lag behind their white peers by 40 to 60 points. And African-American students continue to lag behind their peers by 50 to 80 points — the larger of which is roughly the difference between Korea and Turkey in eighth-grade science performance.

Such gaps are not inevitable, though. Other systems have raised student performance across the board, while simultaneously demonstrating high performance for all of their students. In Hong Kong, which outperforms the U.S., a modest nine-point gap separates the fourth-grade math scores of their advantaged and disadvantaged students. The gross 51-point gap that separates like groups of U.S. students in fourth-grade math performance stands in stark contrast.

To ensure that our students can compete with their peers from across the globe — and that our economy can compete — we must redouble our efforts to improve the performance of all students, but especially students of color and low-income students, who continue to lag far behind their peers.

— Allison Horowitz