U.S. students lagging in global test scores

By Christine Armario/The Associated Press

U.S. students are continuing to trail behind their peers in a pack of higher-performing nations, according to results from a key international assessment.

Scores from the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to be released Tuesday show 15-year-old students in the United States performing about average in reading and science, and below average in math. Out of 34 countries, the United States ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.

Those scores are all higher than those from 2003 and 2006, but far behind the highest scoring countries, including South Korea, Finland and Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China and Canada.

“This is an absolute wake-up call for America,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “The results are extraordinarily challenging to us, and we have to deal with the brutal truth. We have to get much more serious about investing in education.”

The PISA exam is one of a handful of tests that compare educational levels across nations and is considered to be the most comprehensive. The test focuses on how well students are able to apply their knowledge in math, reading and science to real-life situations.

Some 470,000 students took the test in 2009 in 65 countries and educational systems, from poor, underdeveloped nations to the most wealthy.

The United States’ mediocre scores on the PISA exam have repeatedly been highlighted by the Obama administration and others pushing for education changes. A number of countries have made big improvements in recent years, while the United States has made only incremental advancements.

Between 1995 and 2008, for example, the U.S. slipped from ranking second in college graduation rates to 13th, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Paris-based organization that develops and administers the PISA exam. Of 34 OECD countries, only eight have a lower high-school-graduation rate.

The 2009 exam had an extra focus on reading and looked at how factors such as family background, equity of resources and governance influence educational outcomes.

The top performers in reading were South Korea, Finland, Hong Kong and Shanghai in China, Singapore, Canada, New Zealand, Japan and Australia.

The gap between the highest performing countries and the United States is stark — students in Shanghai, for example, had an average score of 556 points in reading, 56 points higher than the 500-point average reached by United States students. Shanghai students also posted the highest score in math, with an average of 600 points, 113 points higher than the U.S. average.

The United States spends more per student, on average, than other countries. In the 2009 PISA study, only Luxembourg spent more. The report notes that countries like Estonia and Poland perform at about the same level as the United States, while spending less than half the amount per student.

Mexico had the lowest reading score among OECD member countries, with an average of 425 points — the equivalent of more than two school years behind the highest member score. Among all 2009 participants, there was a gap of 242 points between the highest and lowest reading scores — equal to more than six years of schooling.

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