International Assessment Shows American Students Lagging Behind On Math Skills

American 15-year olds performed below average in mathematics on the recently-released Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)[i], which measures the extent to which students have acquired key knowledge and skills.  Compared to students in 34 counties, the United States ranks between 23rd-29th overall (variation due to sampling and measurement error) and has a mean score 13-points below the overall average.  The data reveals that American students are especially weak in their ability to address higher-level tasks, including solving “real world” problems by taking situations and translating them into mathematical terms.  America students are most proficient at items such as interpreting results and reading diagrams and tables.

Average Score

Looking more closely at the results, one-in-four American students fail to meet the baseline proficiency level in mathematics.  Fully 26{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of 15-year-olds in the U.S. fall into this low performing category, compared to 23{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} overall and just 9{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} in Korea (the top performing country).  Conversely, just 9{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of American students rate in the top tier of performers (13{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of students overall and 31{09f965da52dc6ab4c1643a77bd40d1f729d807040cd8db540234bb981a782222} of students in Korea).

In addition to testing academic skills, the PISA study also includes a series of attitudinal questions.  Of particular interest is the fact that American students are quite confident in their mathematical abilities, despite their performance in this area.  Across five of the eight metrics examined, American students agree that they are confident in their abilities at a higher rate than students overall.

Percentage of students who reported that they feel very confident or confident about having to do the following tasks in mathematics:

Confidence 1

Interestingly, Korean students – who have the highest average score on the mathematics portion of the PISA examination – show significantly lower levels of confidence that their American counterparts on all of the metrics:

Confidence 2

American students also report less anxiety related to mathematics than do students in other countries included in the assessment.  Across all study participants, the PISA data revealed that greater mathematics anxiety translates into assessment scores that are 34 points lower than average – or the equivalent of almost one academic year of mathematics skills.

 Percentage of students who agreed with the following statements:


As Americans debate changes to the education system including implementation of the Common Core, allowing greater school choice, and expanding early childhood education the PISA data reminds us that we must not lose focus on the “3 Rs” – particularly students’ mastery of arithmetic.

[i] This blog post examines recently released data from the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study.  PISA is a triennial survey conducted in 65 countries which assesses the extent to which 15-year-old students have acquired key knowledge and skills.  In total, approximately 510,000 students internationally completed the survey, including 6,000 randomly selected American students from 161 randomly selected schools.  The 2012 assessment focused primarily on mathematics, but also included other areas such as reading, science, problem-solving and financial literacy. 

Comparisons are made to the “OCED” countries which include: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, Luxembourg, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States.  The other countries that participated in the PISA study are known as “partner countries and economies” and are not fully examined in this blog post.


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