STEM | News

U.S. Students Show Significant Gains in Math, Science Results

Reading scores for students in the United States stayed flat in the latest round of PISA tests for 15-year-olds but still beat out students in most other developed countries.

American 15-year-olds saw some improvements in the latest round of international standardized tests administered by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, headquartered in Paris, France. Science and math scores measurably improved over the previous round of OECD's Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) survey for American teenagers, while reading stayed statistically flat, albeit above the international average. The overall ranking for U.S. students in this year's PISA assessment rose six places since the previous assessment in 2006.

The PISA survey is a series of international standardized tests administered to students the 33 OECD member countries and about the same number of non-member countries that choose to participate. The tests follow along the lines of many other standardized tests, with a mixture of multiple choice and short-answer questions. Topics focus on literacy, math, and science and are delivered every three years, with results typically published in December of the following year. The PISA survey debuted in 2000.

International Rankings
The overall gains for the United States were some of the largest in this year's assessment. The United States' six-slot improvement placed it at No. 19 overall (out of the 33 countries in the OECD) and was topped only by Norway, which rose nine positions to land in 13th place; Iceland, which gained eight places and ended in 11th place; and Poland, which rose seven places to tie with Iceland for 11th.

Total scores for the top-20 countries were fairly tight, with only 142 points separating the 19th-place United States (1,489 combined total for the three test averages) from first-place Finland (1,631). Last-place Mexico trailed the United States by 229 points.

Austria saw the largest decline in rankings this time around, falling 11 places to occupy the United States' old position at No. 25. Large declines were also seen by Sweden (dropping eight slots to land in 21st place), Czech Republic (also losing eight and winding up at 22), Ireland (minus seven to 17th place), Luxembourg (dropping five points to 28), and Slovenia (also losing five to land at 16).

Reading Scores
In reading, U.S. students averaged an even 500 points, placing the United States in seventh position overall. Thirteen countries were in a statistical dead heat with the United States, and 13 others came in significantly lower than the United States. (Note that in some documents, Estonia is listed among the 33 OECD countries' rankings, though, like the Russian Federation, it is not yet a full OECD member, but an "accession candidate.")

Among participating non-OECD members, only the Chinese (both Hong Kong and mainland) and SIngapore beat out the United States. Taiwan and Liechtenstein were statistically tied. Twenty-six other participating non-OECD nations' students trailed American students.

Among the three sub-scales, American students performed best in the category of "reflect and evaluate," in which they scored an average of 512 points.

In terms of reading proficiency, 99 percent of American students scored at "level 1b" or better. (Level 1b is the lowest proficiency level in the reading literacy portion of PISA.) That's the same as the OECD member nations as a whole. But more American students scored the highest proficiency levels (4 through 6) than the OECD average. Thirty-one percent of American students scored at level 4 or higher, compared with 29 percent of OECD members on average.


PISA 2009
Reading Literacy Demographics

Females outscored males in reading literacy in every single country that participated in the 2009 PISA survey. In the United States, the average gap between women and men was 25 points (a smaller gap than the 39-point OECD average gap).

Socioeconomics played an obvious role in the results. Based solely on percentage of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches in the United States, the scores followed a near-linear trend:


% of Students Eligible for Free/Reduced-Price Lunches Score
U.S. Average 500
Less than 10% 551
10% to 24.9% 527
25% to 49.9% 502
50% to 74.9% 471
75% to 100% 446
Source: U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, "Highlights From PISA 2009."

was also a significant factor. As seen in the recently released NAEP results, American students of Asian descent scored highest in reading, with an average score of 541, followed by students categorized as white (525), Hispanic (466), and black (441).

—D. Nagel

Math Scores
Students from 17 countries scored higher on average than U.S. students in math. American 15-year-olds averaged 487 points, which was also below the OECD average, though a statistically significant improvement over the results from the previous PISA assessment in 2006.

American students climbed a full 13 points on average from the 2006 assessment to the 2009 assessment, while the previous top scorers (Finland, South Korea, and the Netherlands) all declined slightly. The overall OECD average in 2009 was 499.

This year's top average scorer in math was South Korea, with an average math score of 546--59 points ahead of the United States' average.

In terms of proficiency, American students were slightly behind the international average in terms of the percentage of students achieving the highest levels of proficiency. The United States tied the OECD average with 92 percent of students scoring at or above a "level 1" proficiency.

Level 1 indicated the most basic proficiency, where students "can answer questions involving familiar contexts where all relevant information is present and the questions are clearly defined. They are able to identify information and to carry out routine procedures according to direct instructions in explicit situations. They can perform actions that are obvious and follow immediately from the given stimuli."

Twenty-seven percent of American students scored at the more advanced level 4 or better, compared with an OECD average of 32 percent scoring at that level.

Science Scores
In the standardized test of science concepts, scores from American students in 2009 saw significant gains. U.S. students scored 502 points on average, again a full 13 points ahead of the results from the 2006 assessment. The overall OECD average in the latest test was 501.

No. 1 Finland actually declined nine points from its 2006 average in science. And Canada fell from the No. 3 slot to No. 5, dropping five test points on average from 2006 to 529. No. 2 Japan increased eight points on average to 539.

In terms of proficiency, the United States was right in line with the rest of the OECD. A full 96 percent of American 15-year-olds scored at level 1 or better, compared with 95 percent for the OECD members as a whole. Twenty-nine percent of Americans and 29 percent of OECD members scored at level 4 or better.

Complete results from the 2009 PISA survey can be found here. A special report on the United States itself ("Strong Performers and Successful Reformers in Education: Lessons from PISA for the United States") can be downloaded in PDF format here. A report containing a summary, several details, and sample questions from the 2009 assessment can be found on the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics site here.