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A guide to international assessments: At a glance

Few education stories get as much attention as the periodic ranking of U.S. students on international tests. Our national fascination with being number one explains only part of the interest. Many policymakers, business leaders and analysts warn that our economic future is at risk unless the nation’s schools can move our students to the top spot, especially in mathematics and science (Business Roundtable, 2005; National Research Council, 2005). Still others maintain that this argument is overblown and question the legitimacy of the rankings themselves (Berliner & Biddle, 1995; Bracey, 1998).

While the debate continues, one thing remains constant: the desire of American educators, parents and community members to provide the best possible education to their young people. International comparisons can provide useful insights about our educational strengths and weaknesses, as well as highlight practices in other countries that could be instructive for our own.

The horse race vs. significant differences

A word about what international scores mean. Often, news accounts of American performance are reported as straight rankings, for example, American high school students scored 15th in the world in reading. Numerically, this statement is correct, and if the test were a horse race, it would tell us everything we need to know. Three ended up in the money and the others were out of it, even if it was a photo finish involving many thoroughbreds

But an international test isn’t a horse race. The important thing to know is not who scored highest, but who did not score higher by chance. For this reason, it’s best to look at the statistical significance of different scores. So while American high schoolers were numerically 15th in reading, only three nations performed significantly better, seven scored significantly worse, and 20 scored statistically about the same.

In truth, American students aren’t “failing” as some headlines would suggest. But we don’t win, place, or show on any international test of knowledge and skills, either. In the vast space in between, the U.S. performance varies considerably depending on the subject area being tested and the age of test-takers.


  • American kids are good readers in comparison to many of their peers across the globe. Only three countries significantly outscored the U.S. at the elementary and high school levels (PIRLS, 2001; PISA 2000). The reading performance of our 4th graders was particularly strong. They scored significantly above the international average (PIRLS, 2001), while our 15-year-olds scored slightly above the average (PISA, 2000).
  • Our math performance is mediocre. American 4th graders performed above the international average but were significantly outdone by young math students in 11 of the 25 nations participating in the assessment (TIMSS, 2003). Our 8th graders performed about the same (TIMSS, 2003). By high school, our students’ performance falls below the international average. Only 11 of the 39 participating nations did significantly worse than the U.S. (PISA, 2003).
  • U.S. science performance is a study of contrasts. On one hand, both American 4th and 8th-graders scored above the international average (TIMSS, 2003). Only three countries did significantly better than the U.S. with their elementary students, and American 4th-graders outperformed their counterparts in 16 other countries (TIMSS, 2003). But as in math, our high school students were significantly outscored in science by their peers in 18 of the 38 participating countries with a performance that was below the international average (PISA, 2003). 
  • The gap between affluent and poor students in the U.S. is near the international average. When comparing students’ performance by parents’ educational level, parents’ occupation, and number of books in the home, Canada, Finland, and Iceland had smaller achievement gaps than the U.S. while Germany had a larger gap (Hampden-Thompson and Johnston, 2006). The results are similar when looking at students by their immigration status and first language spoken.
  • The American adult population (age 16 to 65) performed near the bottom on a six-nation assessment of literacy and numeracy.  The U.S. performance exceeded only Italy’s. Outscoring us were Norway, Bermuda, Canada, and Switzerland (ALL, 2003).

What we can learn

Knowing where the U.S. stands is the first step. A closer look into the data will help us better understand how the U.S. compares to other countries and uncover what other countries seem to be doing well that might apply here in the United States.

To get at these answers, administrators for the international assessments also collect a wealth of background data about student characteristics, instructional practices, teacher qualities, and more. For example:

  • What does the curriculum look like? How is it organized? What does it cover?
  • How long is the school year? school day? When do children begin school?
  • How do educational resources compare?
  • How are teachers prepared and certified?
  • What proportion of the student population is foreign born? low socioeconomic status (SES)? How does their performance compare to similar groups in the U.S.?

Researchers continue to analyze this data and provide clues to the relationship to student performance. The Center will be summarizing this research and make the lessons learned available in the coming weeks. In the end, the real trophy for the U.S. to claim is being able to guarantee that all of our students have the knowledge and skills they will need in the world beyond the schoolhouse door.

The document was written by Jim Hull, policy analyst, Center for Public Education.

Posted: February 14, 2007

©2007 Center for Public Education

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