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U.S. Students’ Math Scores Drop on International Exam, World Ranking Falls to No. 35

By Carolyn Phenicie | December 6, 2016

American teenagers’ math scores on an international test dropped last year, putting the United States in the bottom half among dozens of participating countries.
“This pattern that we’re seeing in mathematics seems to be sort of consistent with what we’ve seen in previous assessments of mathematics literacy,” said Peggy Carr, acting director of the National Center for Education Statistics. “Everything is just going down across the entire distribution. I think it is something we should keep an eye on as we move forward.”

U.S. students ranked No. 35 in math, down from No. 28 in 2012, among the 60 nations whose students took the Program for International Student Assessment in both 2012 and 2015. PISA is given every three years through the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to 15-year-olds around the world, assessing performance in math, reading and science.

"We're losing ground — a troubling prospect when, in today's knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world. Students in Massachusetts, Maryland and Minnesota aren't just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines, they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany and Japan," Education Secretary John King will say Tuesday at an event in Boston, according to prepared remarks.

Students in Singapore got the top scores on all three tests. Students in Shanghai, China, were the best in 2012; this year their results are combined with students from three other Chinese provinces.

(The 74: 6 Reasons Why Singapore Math Might Just Be the Better Way)

More than 500,000 students from 70 countries participated in the two-hour test in 2015. Students received a combination of questions drawn from 103 items in reading, 184 in science, 81 in math, 117 in collaborative problem-solving and 43 in financial literacy, according to U.S. News & World Report.

American students’ math scores were lower last year than they were in 2012 or 2009, and they were below the average among students in other wealthy nations, such as Canada, Japan and Ireland.

Compared with international averages, the U.S. also had a higher percentage of students who scored at “below proficient” levels on the math exam, as well as a lower percentage of students performing at the most advanced levels.

In top-ranked Singapore, for instance, 8 percent of students performed at levels considered “below proficient” in math, and 35 percent performed at advanced levels. In the U.S., that was almost reversed, with 29 percent “below proficient” and just 6 percent advanced.

The math scores on PISA are similar to 2015 results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test given only in the U.S. Math scores on the NAEP tests for fourth-, eighth- and 12th-graders dropped last year.

(The 74: Test Scores on “Nation’s Report Card” Fall, Leaders Cite Common Core Rollout)

The PISA scores come a week after the release of another international math benchmarking test, which measured scores of fourth- and eighth-graders. That exam, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, showed gains among eighth-graders in math and science, but stagnant scores for fourth-graders. Children at both grade levels trailed their peers in 10 other countries, mostly in Asia.

American students’ rankings were much better in reading and science, even as scores on those exams stayed mostly flat.

In science, American students ranked No. 18, up from No. 21 among the 60 countries that took the exam in both 2012 and 2015. Reading scores put American students at No. 15, up from No. 18 on the 2012 exam.

“This stagnant performance by U.S. students in the last four years once again affirms our belief that the U.S. would be well served to take a hard look at the strategies used by top-performing education systems and adapt lessons learned from them to fit the U.S. context and need,” Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, said in a statement.

Finland, often held up as a Western education utopia, ranked No. 6 in science, No. 5 in reading and No. 14 in math, bested in each category by at least one European or North American country. Finland’s ranking fell in science and math and increased in reading.

(The 74: The Cult of Finland: What American Schools CAN’T Learn From International Comparisons)

Massachusetts, North Carolina and Puerto Rico participated separately from the nation. On all three tests, students in Massachusetts scored higher than the national average, while students in North Carolina were on par with the rest of the country and students in Puerto Rico scored below the U.S. average.

If Massachusetts were its own country, ranked among the 70 nations that took the test in 2015, it would be tied for No. 6 in science, tied for No. 2 in reading and No. 18 in math.

King is also set to praise the Massachusetts results later today, saying the state's top scores didn't happen by accident.

"It has taken years of people showing courage," King will say. "It has taken years of overcoming challenges. It has taken years to make real and meaningful change happen. And it will take time to see the work we are continuing to do today truly pay off for students." 

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