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CRESP Research Report


It is widely believed and lamented that students from the US perform poorly in international comparisons of academic achievement. Such perceptions have led to grave concerns about the future economic competitiveness of the US internationally. These concerns have been based on a generation of older international surveys on mathematics and science achievement. Fortunately, a recent generation of high quality international achievement surveys has been completed since 1990 on a wider array of subjects—reading, mathematics, science, and civics. Accordingly, the purpose of this report is to assemble and organize the results of all major international achievement surveys re-ported since 1990 in order to determine how well US students have performed in comparison with their peers from 21 other industrialized nations.

Upon aggregating the standing of US achievement scores across subject matters and grade levels, the results indicated that US students score somewhat higher than their peers in other industrialized nations, with only 24% of national scores being significantly higher than the US and 35% being significantly lower. Therefore, US students generally perform above average in international comparisons instead of poorly. The exception was mathematics, a subject in which US students score somewhat below average. It was also found that US students performed above aver-age at the elementary grade level, and average at the middle and secondary levels.

More detailed comparisons of achievement scores were made with the major economic competitors of the US—the G7 nations. At the middle and secondary grade levels (the levels at which the US is least competitive), US scores are comparable to those of other Western G7 nations in reading, mathematics, and science, and considerably higher in civics. Scores of Japanese students in reading are comparable to Western G7 nations and the US, but much higher in mathematics and science. With respect to academic achievement, the US is quite comparable to other major Western nations, whereas the Western G7 nations consistently trail Japan in mathematics and science.

Because of the well-known achievement gap in the US between White and minority students, scores were further analyzed by race/ethnicity (White, Black, and Hispanic). US achievement scores for the majority White students were consistently greater than those of the other five Western G7 nations, even though these nations were pre-dominantly White. By comparison, the scores for US Black and Hispanic students were very low and well below other scores. This is compelling evidence that the low scores of two minority groups were major factors in reducing the comparative standing of the US in international achievement surveys. That is, if these minority students per-formed at the level of US White students, the US would lead all G7 nations (including Japan) in reading and would lead Western G7 nations in mathematics and science, while still trailing Japan in mathematics.

We conclude that US students have generally performed above average in comparisons with industrialized nations instead of poorly as widely perceived. The misconception of poor US performance may be due to several reasons—inadequate information, unreasonable expectations that the US should be first-in-the-world, biased report-ing, and/or misleading comparisons of the US (a large multi-state nation) with small and homogeneous nations such as Finland and Ireland. In this respect, we compared TIMSS-linked science scores of 40 US states with TIMSS science scores of 22 European nations (eighth grade level). The mean and variability of US science scores was very similar to that of scores from the European nations.

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Date Posted: 20 April 2017