International Test Scores

Poor U.S. Test Results
Tied To Weak Curriculum

Most of the following was excerpted from a speech by Pascal D. Forgione, Jr., Ph.D.,U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics.  As a government researcher, he tries to put the best possible spin on the academic failure of American schools, but this is no sugar-coated report.

Math and science offer the only common basis for comparing American schools to the rest of the world. Other subjects vary from one country to another. Results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) involving a half-million students in 41 countries are authoritative. Oversight groups included not only the world's leading experts on comparative studies of education systems, but also experts in assessment design and statistical analysis.

Comparisons are Fair Traditionally, the most common criticism of international studies is that it is unfair to compare our results to other countries because their national scores are based on a highly selective population. While this may have been true in the past, it is simply not valid in the case of TIMSS. Using several different methods of measuring enrollment, the data indicate that the enrollment rate in the United States is closer to the international average than to the desirable upper extreme. Even the theory that higher secondary enrollment rates hurt a country's overall achievement did not hold true. Students in countries with higher enrollment rates tended to score significantly higher on both the math and science general knowledge assessments. Higher secondary enrollment rates are associated with higher levels of performance, rather than the reverse. The range of scores, from high to low, is no greater in the United States than in the higher-scoring countries. 

Participants This study included primarily the industrialized countries of Europe but also the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Asia. So-called third world countries that have a higher literacy rate than the U.S., like Costa Rica, and others that contribute a significant number of U.S. advance degreed immigrants, like India , were not part of this study; therefore, the results in terms of world competition are worse than portrayed in these charts.

Results In short, the tests showed U.S. fourth-graders performing poorly, middle school students worse. and high school students are unable to compete. By the same criteria used to say we were "average" in elementary school, "we appear to be "near the bottom" at the high school level. People have a tendency to think this picture is  bleak but it doesn't apply to their own school. Chances are, even if your school compares well in SAT scores, it will still be a lightweight on an international scale.

  1. By the time our students are ready to leave high school - ready to enter higher education and the labor force - they are doing so badly with science they are significantly weaker than their peers in other countries.
  2. Our idea of "advanced" is clearly below international standards.
  3. There appears to be a consistent weakness in our teaching performance in physical sciences that becomes magnified over the years.

Causes for Failure One would think that with our vastly superior resources and the level of education spending which far exceeds these competitors we would outperform nearly everyone - not so. Dr. Schmidt, who oversees the research effort into the TIMSS results, says the actual cause for the failures appears to be weak math and science curricula in U.S. middle schools. 

A more insightful explanation was once proffered by Jean McLaughlin, president of Barry University who said "The public schools lack focus; instead of concentrating on education, they dabble in social re-engineering". That assessment was confirmed by the superintendent of the country's fourth largest school district in Miami-Dade, Florida who said "Half our job is education, and the other half is social work". 

Downward sloping performance confirms John Taylor Gatto's thesis in his book Dumbing Us Down and his speeches which charge compulsory government education with deliberately producing robots instead of adults who are the best they can be.

Curricula The biggest deficits are found at the middle school level. In middle school, most countries shift curricula from basic arithmetic and elementary science in the direction of chemistry, physics, algebra and geometry. Even poor countries generally teach a half-year of algebra and a half-year of geometry to every eighth-grader.

In U.S. middle schools, however, most students continue to review arithmetic. And they are more likely to study earth science and life science than physics or chemistry.

Teachers Among teachers of high school biology and life sciences classes, approximately 31 percent of them do not have at least a minor in biology. Among high school physical science teachers, over half, 55 percent, do not have at least a minor in any of the physical sciences. Again we might question the focus of the teachers on social re-engineering instead of subject areas.

Textbooks U.S. textbooks treat topics with a "mile-wide, inch-deep" approach, Schmidt said. A typical U.S. eighth-grade math textbook deals with about 35 topics. By comparison, a Japanese or German math textbook for that age would have only five or six topics. Comparisons done elsewhere between French and American  math books show more innovative approaches to finding, for instance, the volume of a pyramid. Fractions don't lend themselves to computerization, so they're relegated to an importance slightly above Roman numerals. Calculators are here to stay, so kids breeze through long division. They concentrate on how to use math rather than how to do math, and with less entanglement in social philosophy.


American Education Not World Class


The schools systematically let kids down. By grade 4, American students only score in the middle of 26 countries reported. By grade 8 they are in the bottom third, and at the finish line, where it really counts,  we're near dead last. Its even worse when you notice that some of the superior countries in grade 8 (especially the Asians) were not included in published 12th grade results.

Grade 4 Grade 8 Grade 12
Rank Nation Score   Nation Score Nation Score
1. Singapore 625   Singapore 643 Netherlands 560
2. Korea 611   Korea 607 Sweden 552
3. Japan 597   Japan 605 Denmark 547
4. Hong Kong 587   Hong Kong 588 Switzerland 540
5. Netherlands 577   Belgium 565 Iceland 534
6. Czech Republic 567   Czech Republic 564 Norway 528
7. Austria 559   Slovak Republic 547 France 523
8. Slovenia 552   Switzerland 545 New Zealand 522
9. Ireland 550   Netherlands 541 Australia 522
10. Hungary 548   Slovenia 541 Canada 519
11. Australia 546   Bulgaria 540 Austria 518
12. United States 545   Austria 539 Slovenia 512
13. Canada 532 France 538 Germany 495
14. Israel 531 Hungary 537 Hungary 483
15. Latvia 525 Russian Fed. 535 Italy 476
16. Scotland 520 Australia 530 Russian Fed. 471
17. England 513 Ireland 527 Lithuania 469
18. Cyprus 502 Canada 527 Czech Republic 466
19. Norway 502 Belgium 526 United States 461
20. New Zealand 499 Sweden 519 Cyprus 446
21. Greece 492 Thailand 522 South Africa 356
22. Thailand 490 Israel 522
23. Portugal 475 Germany 509
24. Iceland 474 New Zealand 508
25. Iran 429 England 506
26. Kuwait 400 Norway 503
27. Denmark 502
28. United States 500
29.       Scotland 498      
30.       Latvia 493      
31.       Spain 487      
32.       Iceland 487      
33.       Greece 484      
34.       Romania 482      
35.       Lithuania 477      
36.       Cyprus 474      
37.       Portugal 454      
38.       Iran 428      
39.       Kuwait 392      
40.       Colombia 385      
41.       South Africa 354      
Grade Average 529 Grade Average 513 Grade Average 500



Grade 4 Grade 8 Grade 12
Rank Nation Score   Nation Score   Nation Score
1. Korea 597 Singapore 607   Sweden 559
2. Japan 574 Czech Republic 574   Netherlands 558
3. United States 565 Japan 571   Iceland 549
4. Austria 565 Korea 565   Norway 544
5. Australia 562 Bulgaria 565   Canada 532
6. Netherlands 557 Netherlands 560   New Zealand 529
7. Czech Republic 557 Slovenia 560   Australia 527
8. England 551 Austria 558   Switzerland 523
9. Canada 549 Hungary 554   Austria 520
10. Singapore 547 England 552 Slovenia 517
11. Slovenia 546 Belgium 550 Denmark 509
12. Ireland 539 Australia 545 Germany 497
13. Scotland 536 Slovak Republic 544 France 487
14. Hong Kong 533 Russian Fed. 538 Czech Republic 487
15. Hungary 532 Ireland 538 Russian Fed. 481
16. New Zealand 531 Sweden 535 United States 480
17. Norway 530   United States 534 Italy 475
18. Latvia 512 Germany 531 Hungary 471
19. Israel 505   Canada 531   Lithuania 461
20. Iceland 505   Norway 527   Cyprus 448
21. Greece 497   New Zealand 525   South Africa 349
22. Portugal 480   Thailand 525    
23. Cyprus 475   Israel 524    
24. Thailand 473   Hong Kong 522    
25. Iran 416   Switzerland 522    
26. Kuwait 401   Scotland 517  
      15 others        
Grade Average 524   Grade Average 516   Grade Average 500


For years, people have taken comfort in the notion that while the performance of all our students may be poor, our strength lies in our top students. Many people believe that our best students perform better than the best students of most other countries. TIMSS shows this notion to be untrue. Note again that many superior countries (especially the Asians) are not included in the reported results.

Grade 12 Top Students

Advanced Math Advanced Science
Rank   Nation Score   Nation Score
1. France 557   Norway 581
2. Russian Fed. 542   Sweden 573
3. Switzerland 533   Russian Fed. 545
4. Australia 525   Denmark 534
5. Denmark 522   Slovenia 523
6. Cyprus 518   Germany 522
7. Lithuania 516   Australia 518
8. Greece 513   Cyprus  494
9. Sweden 512   Latvia 488
10. Canada 509 Switzerland 488
11. Slovenia 475 Greece 486
12. Italy 474 Canada 485
13. Czech Republic 469 France 466
14. Germany 465 Czech Republic 451
15. United States 442 Austria 435
16. Austria 436 United States 423
  Grade Average 501   Grade Average 501


Editorial Comment  In 1983, A Nation At Risk urgently recommended reforms in education warning "the United States is under challenge from many quarters".  Today we're at greater risk than ever. The Government Education Monopoly continues to imperil our economy by failing miserably at preparing the workforce. Business increasingly looks for talent overseas. The world's greatest concentration of PhD's is in Seoul, Korea and half of Americans can't even find Seoul on a map. Microsoft India taps Indian programming and engineering skills with 83,000 certifications issued in 1999. We import 107,000 H-1B professionals every year, half of them with PhD's. Unless we re-tool education, there is a strong likelihood that America will get overtaken in education the way we did in automobiles. Before the 70's our economy was based on the automobile, but a complacent automobile industry failed to make changes. Japanese cars invaded, and canceled our dominance. The resulting outflow of dollars to Japan devastated our economy. Its about to happen again, this time to pay high salaries to well-educated workers overseas.

Doing it Right One does not need to scurry around trying to devise a plan to extricate ourselves from this mess. The simplest way to improve American education (public, private, and parochial) quickly is to adopt books and teaching methods from countries at the top of the ranking. Several International Baccalaureate schools have gotten dual accreditation from the participating sister country when they met the higher standards required abroad. In our own case, that required an extra hour of instruction each day, and phys-ed in a foreign language. One such government school nicknamed "teacher heaven" was organized by principal Lois Lindahl in Miami, Florida. Her motto is "Children will perform to the level of your expectations".


Download the summary TIMSS report in PDF format

Full text and charts of Forgione speech:

See also:

Kill the messenger: Dr. Forgione's re-nomination as U.S. Commissioner of Education Statistics was blocked by the Clinton/Gore administration.  Forgione is now Superintendent of the Austin Independent School District

This research brought to you by 4Choice, dedicated to School Choice without School Vouchers.

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