New international assessments of student performance in reading, math, and science provide both encouraging news about American students' progress and some sobering cautionary notes.
The encouraging news is that U.S. fourth grade students have made significant progress in reading and mathematics in the last five years. In fact, our fourth graders now rank among the world's leaders in reading literacy, and U.S. student achievement in math is now only surpassed, on average, in four countries.
Unfortunately, these signs of real progress are counterbalanced by the fact that learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained through eighth grade--where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve between 2007 and 2011.
Still, the progress of fourth graders is especially noteworthy because we see it on rigorous, internationally-benchmarked assessments that students take without any special test preparation, the TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).
And unlike previous PISA assessments--the other major international assessment, which U.S. 15-year olds take--nine U.S. states voluntarily participated in TIMSS in 2011. For the first time, policymakers and parents now have data to gauge how academic performance in a significant subset of states compares with the U.S. as a whole, and with international competitors.
In 2006, the last time the PIRLS reading assessments were administered, a slew of countries and regions equaled or surpassed U.S. fourth graders in reading. Students in Hungary, Italy, Sweden, and the Canadian province of Alberta had higher levels of literacy than U.S. students.
Yet five years later, U.S. students are out-performing students in all of those nations and provinces. Education systems where students were on a par with U.S. fourth graders in reading literacy in 2006--Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, and the Quebec region of Canada--have all been surpassed in the last five years by U.S. students.
Just as encouraging, students in highly-diverse states like Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina excelled internationally in a number of subject areas, suggesting that demography is not destiny in America's schools.
State and local policy turn out to matter a great deal--and can have a powerful influence in advancing or slowing educational progress. It is state and local leaders and educators who are providing the commitment, courage, collaboration, and capacity at the state and local level to accelerate achievement. It's no surprise that Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina all won competitive Race to the Top grants from the federal government.
Finally, the new TIMSS and PIRLS results put to rest, once and for all, the myth that America's schools cannot be among the world's top-performing school systems. In fact, eighth graders in Massachusetts performed below only one country in the world in science, Singapore.
In Florida, the math skills of students are on a par with those of their Finnish peers, who have a record of being among the top-performing students in the world. And the reading skills of Florida's fourth-graders are on a par with those of the top-performing education systems in the world, too, including Finland and Singapore.
For all of the good news, the new TIMSS and PIRLS assessments also underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in middle school and the pressing need to close large and persistent achievement gaps.
To take one example, in 2011, white eighth graders scored 83 points higher in science on TIMSS than black students and 60 points higher than Hispanic students.
To put those numbers in perspective, white eighth graders in the U.S. did about as well in science as Finland's and Japan's students, and were only surpassed by students in Singapore, Chinese Taipei, and Korea.
By contrast, Hispanic eight graders' science scores were on a par with students from Norway and Kazakhstan. And black eighth graders' science scores were roughly equivalent to those of students from Iran, Romania, and the United Arab Emirates.
If education is to fulfill its essential role in America as the great equalizer, big achievement gaps and opportunity gaps must close--and all students must receive a world-class education that genuinely prepares them for colleges and careers in the 21st century. In America, educational opportunity cannot depend on the color of your skin, your zip code, or the size of your bank account.
Given the vital role that science, technology, engineering, and math play in stimulating innovation and economic growth, it is particularly troubling that eighth-grade science achievement has barely budged in the U.S. since 2007. Students in Singapore and Korea are far more likely today to perform at advanced levels in science than U.S. students.
In a knowledge-based economy, education is the new key to individual success and national prosperity. The results of the TIMSS and PIRLS assessments show both that our students are on the path to progress--and that we still have a long journey to go before all of America's children get an excellent education.
--Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education