Principle 23 of the "principles of data interpretation" that organize "Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered," reads "If the situation really is as alleged ask, 'So what?'" The question does not call for some smart-ass response, it calls for an evaluation of the consequences of the situation. So the U. S. is not #1 in mathematics or science testing. So what? So, very little.
First, comparing nations on average scores is a pretty silly idea. It's like ranking runners based on average shoe size or evaluating the high school football team on the basis of how fast the average senior can run the 40-yard dash. Not much link to reality. What is likely much more important is how many high performers you have. On both TIMSS math and science, the U. S. has a much higher proportion of "advanced" scorers than the international median although the proportion is much smaller than in Asian nations.
This was not true on PISA, another international comparison that tests 15-year-olds. Only 1.5% of American students scored at the highest level compared to top performing New Zealand at 4% and second place Finland at 3.9%. Yet the proportion of Americans at the highest level meant that 70,000 kids scored there compared to about 2,000 for New Zealand and Sweden. No one else even came close--Japan was second with about 33,000 top performers. These are the people who might end up creating leading edge technology in the future. Who cares if Singapore, with about the same population as the Washington Metro Area, and Hong Kong, with about twice that number, score high? There aren't many people there. (And, as journalist Fareed Zakariya found out, the Singapore kids fade as they become adults. More about that in a moment). The bad news is that the U. S., on PISA anyway, had many more students scoring at the lowest levels; these kids likely can't compete for the good jobs in the country.
Second, test scores, at least average test scores, don't seem to be related to anything important to a national economy. Japan's kids have always done well, but the economy sank into the Pacific in 1990 and has never recovered. The two Swiss-based organizations that rank nations on global competitiveness, the Institute for Management Development and the World Economic Forum, both rank the U. S. #1 and have for a number of years. The WEF examines 12 "pillars of competitiveness," only one of which is education. We do OK there, but we shine on innovation. Innovation is the only quality of competitiveness that does not show at some point diminishing returns. Building bigger and faster airplanes can only improve productivity so much. Innovation has no such limits. When Zakariya asked the Singapore Minister of Education why his high-flying students faded in after-school years, the Minister cited creativity, ambition, and a willingness to challenge existing knowledge, all of which he thought American excelled in. But, as Bob Sternberg of Tufts University has pointed out, our obsession with standardized testing has produced one of the best instruments in the nation's history for stifling creativity.
But really, does the fate of the nation rest on how well 9- and 13-year-olds bubble in answer sheets? I don't think so. Neither does British economist, S. J. Prais. We look at the test scores and worry about the nation's economic performance. Prais looks at the economic performance and worries about the validity of the test scores: "That the United States, the world's top economic performing country, was found to have school attainments that are only middling casts fundamental doubts about the value and approach of these [international assessments]."
Third, even if comparisons of average test scores were a meaningful exercise, it only looks at one dimension--the supply side. Predictably, the results gave rise to calls for more spending on science instruction. This ignores the fact that we have more scientists and engineers than we can absorb. In one study, Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University and Harold Salzman of the Urban Institute found that we mint three new engineers for every new job (this is from permanent residents and citizens, not foreigners). More disturbing was the attrition rate. While educators fret over losing 50% of teachers in 5 years (and well they should), Lowell and Salzman found that engineering loses 65% in two years. Why? Low pay, lousy working conditions, little chance for advancement. American schools of engineering are dominated by foreigners because only people from third world nations can view our jobs as attractive. In fact, long-time science writer, Dan Greenberg, invented a new position for those emerging with Ph.D.'s: post-doc emeritus.
Schools are doing a great job on the supply side. Business and industry are doing a lousy job on the demand side. The oil industry, responding to increased demand for oil exploration raised the entry-level salaries for petroleum engineers by 30-60%. The number of students lining up to be petroleum engineers has doubled and enrollment at Texas Tech has increased sixfold.
As usual in these comparisons, Americans in low-poverty schools look very good, even in mathematics. They would be ranked third in the 4th grade (among 36 nations) 6th in the 8th grade (among 47 nations). This is important because while other developed nations have poor children, the U. S. has a much higher proportion and a much weaker safety net. When UNICEF studied poverty in 22 wealthy nations, the U. S. ranked 21st.
Finally, there are some curiosities that will take some time to analyze. Critics are fond of pointing to the Czech Republic as a nation that spend much less than we do on schools but scores much higher. Not this time. The Czech Republic has seen catastrophic drops in its math scores since 1995, 54 points in 4th grade, 63 points in 8th grade and is now well below the United States in both grades.
Forty-percent of Koreans reached the highest level in 8th grade math. In PISA, only 1.1% did. Note that that is fewer than the 1.5% of American students at the highest level in PISA.
Then there are the gender differences: For some countries there are huge differences in 8th-grade mathematics---favoring females. Of the eight countries with the largest differences, only Thailand is not an Islamic nation. Does this reflect which girls get to go to school in these countries? I don't know.
P. S. Overall the U. S. did pretty well in both subjects at both grades.