U.S. Students Below Average in Science and Math


Validating the long-standing theme in science and math education, the results of the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were released Dec. 4 by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), showing that in math and science students in the United States are lagging behind most of their counterparts in other countries. The results of this latest research place the United States 25th out of 30 OECD countries in math achievement among 15-year-olds and 21st in science achievement.

The Numbers: Science and Math
The complete report, comprising more than 700 pages of data and analysis on 15-year-old students in 57 countries total, revealed a mean score of 489 in performance on the science scale for U.S. students, placing it 11 points below the OECD average. Finland took the top slot on the scale by a wide margin, with a mean score of 563. The top-5 slots were rounded out by Canada (534), Japan (531), New Zealand (530), and Australia (527).

Interestingly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, the United States was one of two OECD countries in which males and females received identical mean scores on the science scale. (The other was Australia.) The biggest gender differences were in Turkey, where females outscored males by 12 points; Greece, where females outscored males by 11 points; and the U.K., where males outscored females by 10 points.

Also worth noting is that the United States, well below average overall in science, was nevertheless slightly above average in the percentage of students achieving the highest level of proficiency in science ("Level 6")--(1.5 percent versus the average of 1.3 percent. It was beaten out by 10 other countries in this regard, including New Zealand, in which a full 4 percent of students achieved top-level proficiency, Finland (3.9 percent), the U.K. (2.9 percent), Australia (2.8 percent), Italy (2.6 percent), Japan (2.6 percent), Canada (2.4 percent), Germany (1.8 percent), Czech Republic (1.8 percent), and the Netherlands (1.7 percent). In the United States, males barely edged out females in the percentage of students achieving top science proficiency (1.6 percent versus 1.5 percent). Males also had far more at the lowest achievement level (8.3 percent versus 6.8 percent below "Level 1").

On the mathematics scale, the United States fared worse, coming in at No. 25 among OECD countries at a mean score of 474--again well below the average of OECD countries (498). Fifteen of these OECD countries scored higher than 500, with Finland narrowly edging out Korea for the top position (548 versus 547).

There was more of a gender difference in mean math scores across the board in math than in science, with males surpassing females by 11 points on average. In the United States, males outperformed females by nine points. The countries with the largest differences were all in favor of males, including Austria (23 point difference), Germany (20 points), and Italy (20 points). Of al of the OECD countries, only Iceland showed results in which females outperformed males in math by mean score, with a difference of four points.

With 1.3 percent of students achieving the top performance level in math, the United States was well behind the OECD average of 3.3 percent.

Reading performance was also measured as part of the study, but there were no data for the United States.

Analysis and Further details
While the report shows downward momentum in science and math for the United States in the rankings, this does not indicate a decline in scores for U.S. students. Instead, other countries have moved up, while the United States has remained virtually stagnant over the three-year period between this year's report and the previous report (2003). For some, however, it does indicate a decline in the ability of the United States to compete globally.

"Our students' performance today is the best indicator of America's global competitiveness tomorrow," said Raymond C. Scheppach of the National Governors' Association, in a statement released today. "The United States faces emerging challenges across the international marketplace. The countries that thrive in this new global, entrepreneurial, and knowledge-based economy will be those that have the most highly skilled and educated workforce."

Said Ray Romer, superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District and former governor of Colorado, "These results reaffirm that America's education system is in crisis and that there are lasting implications for our children, who are unprepared to enter an increasingly competitive global marketplace," he says. "They underscore the need for the presidential candidates to show bold leadership, free from ideological constraints and the influence of special interests, to bring America out of this crisis back to a level competitive with top-performing countries."

However, others take issue with the report, specifically comparing a nation like the United States, in which many of those tested do not speak the native tongue as a first language, with countries like Finland, with a somewhat homogenous cultural makeup where language is not an issue.

Clifford Adelman, in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor today, said, "The question is how you account for that statistically. I'm comparing [the US] a country of 300-odd million people, a nation of immigrants, that is incredibly diverse with, in the example of Finland, a country of [just under] 6 million people."

There was, in fact, a significant difference between scores of those who speak a different language at home most of the time than the language of the examinations. In the United States, for example, 10.7 percent of students in the study spoke a different language at home than that of the examination, and they received a mean score of 434 in science. The remaining students who primarily speak the language of the examination at home received a mean score of 498--a difference of 64 points in favor of native speakers.

The United States, however, did not have the largest percentage of non-native speakers taking the tests. Nor did it experience the largest disparity between between the scores of native and non-native speakers. Switzerland, with a 12.9 percent non-native-speaking group, saw a 90-point disparity in science; and Luxembourg, with a 23.7 percent non-native-speaking group, saw an 84-point difference in mean scores.

There was less of a difference in math scores between the two groups, with non-native speakers receiving a mean math score of 440 and native speakers receiving a mean of 480.

Immigrant status also played a role in performance in the United States and elsewhere. In the United States, 5.8 percent of students were identified as first-generation immigrants whose parents were also born outside the country. They scored 57 points lower in science and 37 points lower in math than native students.

Another 9.4 percent were identified as second-generation immigrants who were born in this country but whose parents were born in another. They scored 23 points lower in math and 43 points lower in science.

Native students scored 499 in science (mean) and 481 in math, both below average.

Some other findings from the report include:

  • On average across OECD countries, 33 percent of all variation in student performance in science "was between schools, but this varied widely from one country to another," much of this having to do with students' socioeconomic backgrounds;
  • According to OECD, there is "no relationship between the size of countries and the average performance" of students in the assessments;
  • Reading, for which no data were available on U.S. students, showed the greatest gender gap in performance, with females outperforming males by as much as 57 points in OECD countries, with at least a 50-point gender gap in 12 countries;
  • Fifty-seven percent of students reported that science was relevant to them personally, though 97 percent said science was "important" for understanding the natural world;
  • Twenty-one percent said they would like to spend their lives involved in advanced science;
  • Awareness of environmental issues correlates with science performance;
  • Students who performed better in science have a more pessimistic attitude toward environmental issues;
  • Private schools outperformed public schools in 21 OECD countries, while public schools outperformed private schools in four;
  • Students in countries where schools have greater autonomy (formulating budgets and deciding budgetary allocations at the school level) tend to perform better in science, whether they're enrolled in a school that has a high level of autonomy or not; and, finally,
  • Greater resources at school (including an "adequate supply of teachers") correlate with positive student outcomes on average.

The complete PISA 2006 report is available in electronic and print formats via the link below. And electronic executive summary is also available.

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About the author: David Nagel is the executive editor for 1105 Media's online education technology publications, including THE Journal and Campus Technology. He can be reached at [email protected].

Proposals for articles and tips for news stories, as well as questions and comments about this publication, should be submitted to David Nagel, executive editor, at [email protected].

About the Author

David Nagel is the former editorial director of 1105 Media's Education Group and editor-in-chief of THE Journal, STEAM Universe, and Spaces4Learning. A 30-year publishing veteran, Nagel has led or contributed to dozens of technology, art, marketing, media, and business publications.

He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also connect with him on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/davidrnagel/ .