International Test Comparisons: What's Real, What's Not

I was prepared to write a blog explaining that the reason American students under-perform in Science and Math compared to other nations is because our students take less science and math in school.  We see 3-5 exchange student transcripts and a handful of other international transcripts each year.  Students elsewhere spend more than half of their day in science and math classes.  Each year, a student might study Biology, Chemistry and Physics.  In the US, students take a single science class in a year.  Some years they may take no science at all.  We have not given science nor math the level of attention other nations have.

Yes, that was the point of the blog I thought I would write.  But then I looked up the data.  Well, bowl me over.  Last December, the headlines in every major newspaper and news magazine bemoaned the embarrassment of poor science and math performance by American 15-year olds.  It was another nail in the coffin of our failed public education system.

Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to be released Tuesday show 15-year-old students in the U.S. performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.  (USA Today 07 Dec 2010)

Yikes!  We were that bad?  Wait.  14th in Reading sounds respectable; 17th in science places us smack dab in the middle but oh that math score.  So who are these 34 countries?  Well, they're 34 of the 65 who actually took the PISA exams.  And of those 34, 3 of the highest are individual cities in China, not countries.  Interestingly, the British, French and Germans agonized as much over the test results as the US.  All three surpassed US average scores in science and math.  All three also performed worse than the US in reading.

But for a nation that prides itself on ingenuity, innovation and invention, our scores aren't acceptable.  Are there other measures of our international educational ranking?  Indeed.  The 2007 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is the best known measure of science and math performance internationally.  TIMSS tests 4th and 8th graders around the world every 4 years.  The test was just administered again this spring (2011) but those scores won't be available for another year..

In the 2007 TIMSS, the US did quite well.  In Mathematics, our 4th graders ranked 11th of 36 countries and our 8th graders were 9th of 48 countries participating.  Like the PISA, East Asian students were at the top of the charts but the US outperformed nearly every European nation except England and Russia.  Our Science performance was similarly quite good.  Our 4th graders ranked 8th in Science of 36 countries and our 8th graders ranked 11th of 48 countries. 

So where were the headlines when the TIMSS report came out?  Did I miss all the congratulations to American educators and schools in 2008?  I use Yahoo for my search engine and searched "2007 TIMSS".  None of the first 50 search results is a news organization.  NONE of them.  Very different from my search for "2010 PISA" which generated frequent hand-wringing from the New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today and others in my search results. 

There's a lot I could say about why high school science and math results are worse  than 4th and 8th grade results.  I've said much of it in other posts.  But the reading results in high school might lend a clue:  in the US, we promote more than just science and math.  I wish there had been a writing test too.  Our exchange students rarely know how to construct an essay or have any experience with researching and organizing their thoughts to write.

Just as important to me though is why the difference in media attention when American students perform well versus when they perform poorly?  In 2008 there was a positive story to tell and the media ignored it.  Doesn't anyone want to celebrate American education any more?


  1. So Linda, since I have been in education for thirty years like you, why have I not seen my students take these tests? Are they just given to some select schools or towns? Are you saying EVERY 8th grader takes this test?

    I know you thought of comparing apples and oranges. And I just want to know who all takes the tests without the effort you went to...NO! I am not lazy, just really busy! I still tutor four kids for the state who are wards of the state, teach each am in Merlin and have another kid to tutor for the city. I am about ready to retire again: This is too much for me for sure. I am just doing it because in about two weeks, summer will mean no more Merlin Alt. Center: WHOOOPIE!

  2. Each country submits a sampling plan to the testing agencies and specific schools and students are chosen to represent a cross-section of students. Every student does not take the TIMSS. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is similar and given to 12th graders just in the US. We were part of that testing last year.


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