The U.S. performed above average on international standardized tests in elementary and middle school math, science and reading, according to reports released Tuesday. But experts said the rankings, along with similar exams that test students at later ages, show a fundamental problem in America's education system: students tend to perform worse as they age.
"When we start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time," said Jack Buckley, who leads the U.S. Education Department's National Center for Education Statistics. That trend holds true across several exams.
The International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement's PIRLS and TIMSS 2011 exams, released Tuesday, measure reading in fourth grade, and math and reading at fourth grade and eighth grade respectively. Across the board, East Asian countries occupied the upper ranks in the comparison of more than 60 world education systems, far outperforming the U.S.. Because the tests measure different groups of students from year to year, the results are best used as snapshots of performance relative to other countries at one point in time. Overall, the U.S. ranked sixth in fourth-grade reading, ninth in fourth-grade math, 12th in eighth-grade math, seventh in fourth-grade science and 13th in eighth-grade science.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called the U.S. scores encouraging, but described older students' performance as "unacceptable."
"These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps," Duncan said. "Learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained in eighth grade, where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve." He said he was particularly troubled by the stagnation in eighth grade science.
In reading, American fourth graders scored 556, above the international average. The U.S. ranked sixth in reading, with five education systems -- including Florida -- performing better. The U.S. was one of only six countries to increase at all four tested benchmarks over 10 years.
In fourth grade math, the U.S. scored 541 -- higher than the international average of 500. That was 23 points more than the U.S. score in 1995, and 12 points higher than in 2007. Eight education systems -- including Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei, Japan, Northern Ireland, Flemish Belgium and the U.S. state of North Carolina -- had significantly higher scores at that level.
In eighth grade math, the U.S. performed only nine points above the international average, netting a 509, and was outperformed by 11 education systems. But the gap between the tier of top-performing countries like Korea and Singapore over the U.S. was more than 100 points. The 2011 score for U.S. students was 17 points higher than in 1995, and no higher than in 2007.
American fourth graders on average scored 544 in science, higher than the international average of 500, ranking in the top 10 of all participating systems. Six nations, including Korea, Singapore and Finland, had higher averages. U.S. fourth graders in 2011 performed no higher than fourth graders in 1995 and 2007.
In eighth grade, U.S. average science scores came in at 525, higher than the international average of 500. Twelve systems, including Singapore, Chinese Taipei and the state of Massachusetts, scored higher. The 2011 U.S. score represents an increase of 12 points since 1995, and no increase since 2007.
The scores come after much hand-wringing on the part of the school reform movement, which has used international rankings to claim that America's school system needs a serious overhaul if it wants future generations to compete in a global economy. Over the summer, StudentsFirst, the group run by former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, raised eyebrows with Olympics-themed advertisements that portrayed U.S. students as flabby, failed educational Olympians that don't measure up. The ads based that portrayal on America's rankings on the PISA, another international exam that tests students at age 15, whose most recent administration found that out of 34 countries, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math.
The TIMSS results are more favorable. "We feel positive about the results of the United States," said Ina V.S. Mullis, executive director of the TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center at Boston College. "It looks like we've been making steady progress since 1995. We've been increasing results for all students, which is pretty difficult."
But America's poorest students aren't doing as well. "Our most impoverished students lose ground," said Claus von Zastrow, the chief operating officer Change the Equation, a Washington-based group that advocates for math and science education. "They were holding even with the international average in some grade levels, fourth grade, but in eighth grade, they've dropped below. It means they're getting less competitive as they're going through the school system and that's a tragic story."
That story might explain some of the dramatic differences between America's performance on TIMSS and PISA. "My interpretation is it's really sort of success in the early years, but less value gets added as students grow older," Andreas Schleicher, who administers the PISA exam for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, told The Huffington Post. "Every year of schooling adds less value."
It's unclear why that may be. Schleicher hypothesized that some strategies the U.S. has for education, such as "a prescriptive program of teaching," work better in earlier grades. "As you move to later years of schooling, you require more student engagement," he said. As a counter-example, he pointed to Finland, whose students do not fare quite as well in the earlier years as they do in high school. The backwards learning curve in the U.S., he said, matters because "the earnings gap between the lower-skilled and the better-skilled is widening."
The reports also looked at the context of these scores, and found high correlations between students in homes that play math and reading games with advanced fourth grade achievement. It also found that students who report being bullied score lower, and reaffirmed that students from poorer backgrounds do not perform as well as peers.