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U.S. Lags in International Education Assessments

The results for international assessments on math, science, and reading are in: Students from East Asian countries, along with a select group of European countries, outperformed those in the United States, according to the results for the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), released Dec. 11.

Out of 57 countries and education systems worldwide participating in TIMSS, eight significantly surpassed the U.S. in grade 4 math, and 11 did so for grade 8 math. The U.S. was outperformed by similar numbers in science, with six systems surpassing the U.S. in grade 4, and 12 doing so for grade 8, according to the TIMSS results.

Five nations out of 53 performed better than the U.S. in reading, the PIRLS found. Nations that were top performers across all subjects include Chinese Taipei (commonly known as Taiwan), Finland, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore.

“These results are important, but if we’re going to compare the scores, we also have to compare the policies. I have travelled to Singapore, and other high performing nations, and have a good grasp of what’s working well there,” says Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association. “The truth is that we need to put students—not political motivation—at the center of reform. That means reducing our reliance on one-size-fits-all standardized tests; focusing more on preparing, mentoring and supporting new teachers; requiring higher standards for those entering the profession and increasing collaboration between districts and teachers unions.”

Though U.S. grade 4 students made significant progress in reading and math in the last five years, those gains did not hold over time, as grade 8 math and science achievement did not measurably improve between 2007 and 2011, according to the results.

The United States also falls behind other countries in terms of high-performing students: only 7 percent of U.S. students reached advanced international benchmarks in eighth grade math, while 48 percent of students in Singapore and 47 percent of those in South Korea did.

Though the nation as a whole lagged behind the top performing countries, several U.S. states were independently competitive. Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina—all of which received federal Race to the Top grants—excelled internationally, the study found. For example, eighth graders in Massachusetts performed below only Singapore in science, and were on par with Japan and Korea. “Massachusetts did great, which is an indication of the fact that we certainly have the ability to perform at that higher level when we implement the programs and focus on the areas we ought to be focusing on,” says Daniel Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.

It’s important to remember that countries like Singapore, Finland and Hong Kong are smaller than most U.S. states, making international comparisons difficult, Domenech says. Nevertheless, the United States still needs to be challenged, and continue to focus on education, he adds. “One of our problems in the last four years with the economy has been a significant reduction in financial support for our schools, at a time when we’re trying to be globally competitive,” Domenech says, despite some critics who say throwing money at the nation’s education woes won’t help or change things. “That is going to be a problem until we can get the economy turned around and get back on track.”

The TIMSS is the first global assessment of math and science to provide data about trends over time, and measures achievement every four years at the fourth and eighth grade level since 1995. The PIRLS represents the “gold standard” internationally for reading comprehension at the fourth grade level, measuring trends every five years since 2001.

Though U.S. students are on an upward trajectory, the implementation of Common Core State Standards in 2014 is expected to help the nation become more competitive on the international stage, according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“While we have much work ahead of us, I am optimistic that the improvement we’re seeing in teaching and learning will accelerate as states start to integrate the more rigorous Common Core State Standards into curriculum, assessments, teacher evaluations and teacher preparation as well as provide ongoing support throughout teachers’ careers,” said Weingarten in a statement. “When we commit to this alignment and support teachers with the resources and tools to do their jobs, we can further narrow the gap between student achievement in the United States and in other top-ranked countries.”

To view the results, visit