U.S. and international testing, Part 1: U.S. scores are not too shabby


by David Safier

We have a whole new set of international test scores in reading, math and science based on tests taken in 2011. Nothing fogs the brain faster than a long recitation of facts and figures, so I'm going to write a series of short posts about different aspects of the tests and what they reveal. This is the first, an overall comparison of U.S. scores to other countries.

The takeaway is, the U.S. did pretty well across the board even if it wasn't the top country on any of the tests.

The U.S. was approximately 6th in reading, 10th in math and 9th in science. But in terms of statistical significance, many of the scores are bunched together, so the U.S. scores are close to other nations a few points above and below its ranking.

For U.S. exceptionalists, those scores are deplorable. We're supposed to be Number One! But when you consider the variables involved in this kind of test, the scores indicate that U.S. schools are performing similarly to schools in much of the developed world.

Test scores are always questionable indicators of what students learn, and when you cross countries and languages, their comparative value is even more questionable. Asian nations comprise most of the countries whose scores topped the U.S., which brings up cultural factors that go far beyond the bounds of the classroom (Generally, Asian students in the U.S. score higher than other groups). Our income disparity, which is greater than lots of other countries, means we have more students from low income families, and those students generally do poorly in school and on standardized tests. And the fact that the U.S. scored between 6th and 10th puts us ahead of a number of European countries. In reading, for instance, we scored higher than Denmark, England, Canada, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany, to name a few. In math, we topped Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Germany again, and many others. The list is similar in science.

The international comparisons don't indicate our schools are abject failures, contrary to the moaning and groaning of the conservative "education reform" (read, privatization) advocates. Our top schools and top students stack up quite well. But our weakest schools and weakest geographical areas definitely need attention. I'll go into more details in future posts.


  1. Dr. Spinger, for the 2011 reports, google “PIRLS 2011 International Results in Reading,” “TIMSS 2011 International Results in mathematics” and “TIMSS 2011 International Results in science.” After you look over the results and check to see if my analysis is accurate, look at articles on the subject in Education Week as well as some of the major newspapers.

    I would be happy to discuss this further, either in the comments section or by email: safier@schooltales.net.

  2. David,
    I don’t know where you got the test scores for your article but I have never seen scores as good as you report.
    There are two primary sources of international scholastic comparisons among industrialized nations: PISA and TIMSS.

    The PISA test which comes out every 4 years shows that education in the United States is a DISASTER. Their results show that we are 17th in reading, 32nd in math and 23rd in science. The implications of these results is that we are headed toward becoming a second class nation. The Department of Education should be moved to the Department of Homeland Security since our poor education results have clear national security implications. This is particularly true since China is ranked number one in all categories.
    The latest report is available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/dec/07/world-education-rankings-maths-science-reading

    TIMMS is another highly regarded source of comparison among nations. While their report is less dire, it still shows the United States lagging substantially behind.
    A comparison of PISA and TIMSS is available at http://zhaolearning.com/2012/12/11/numbers-can-lie-what-timss-and-pisa-truly-tell-us-if-anything/

    I think you have rose color washed over one of the most serious problems in our country.