comscore Math a concern for U.S. teens; science, reading flat on test | Honolulu Star-Advertiser
Top News

Math a concern for U.S. teens; science, reading flat on test


    Education Secretary John King spoke at the White House in Washington on Sept. 29. The latest global snapshot of student performance shows declining math scores in the U.S. and stagnant performance in science and reading.

WASHINGTON » American students have a math problem.

The latest global snapshot of student performance shows declining math scores in the U.S. and stagnant performance in science and reading.

“We’re losing ground — a troubling prospect when, in today’s knowledge-based economy, the best jobs can go anywhere in the world,” said Education Secretary John B. King Jr. “Students in Massachusetts, Maryland, and Minnesota aren’t just vying for great jobs along with their neighbors or across state lines, they must be competitive with peers in Finland, Germany, and Japan.”

Math was a stubborn concern. “This pattern that we’re seeing in mathematics seems to be consistent with what we’ve seen in previous assessments … everything is just going down,” said Peggy Carr, acting commissioner at the National Center for Education Statistics.

The 2015 Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, study is the latest to document that American students are underperforming their peers in several Asian nations. The U.S. was below the international average in math and about average in science and reading. Singapore was the top performer in all three subjects on the PISA test.

More than half a million 15-year-old students in about 70 nations and educational systems took part in the 2015 exam. The test is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

Here are the main things to know about the PISA exams:


Not so encouraging.

The test is based on a 1,000-point scale. Among the findings:

-In math, the U.S. average score was 470, below the international average of 490. Average scores ranged from 564 in Singapore to 328 in the Dominican Republic.

-In science, the U.S. average score was 496, about the same as the international average of 493. Average scores ranged from 556 in Singapore to 332 in the Dominican Republic.

-In reading, the U.S. average score was 497, around the same as the international average of 493. Average scores ranged from 535 in Singapore to 347 in Lebanon.

Average scores in math have been on the decline since 2009, and scores in reading and science have been flat during that same time period.

Across the globe, American students were outperformed by their counterparts in 36 countries in math; 18 countries in science and 14 countries in reading.


Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at OECD, says high-performing countries do really well in math in three things: rigor, focus, and coherence.

For example, he says, many high-performing countries will teach a lot less but focus at much greater depths, particularly when you look at East Asia, Japan and Singapore.

“Students are often good at answering the first layer of a problem in the United States,” said Schleicher. “But as soon as students have to go deeper and answer the more complex part of a problem, they have difficulties.”


“The latest U.S. PISA achievement results are disappointing but not surprising,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “They were predictable given the impact of the last 15 years of U.S. education policies combined with continuing state disinvestment following the 2008 recession. Thirty-one states still spend less per pupil than before the recession.”

“This stagnant performance on PISA by U.S. students in the last four years once again affirms our belief that the U.S. would be well served to take a hard look at the strategies used by the top-performing education systems and adapt lessons learned from them to fit the U.S. context and needs,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “It is critical to look not only at their average high performance, but also at the strategies they use to achieve much greater equity across and within schools compared to the United States.”


Globally, gender differences in science tended to be smaller than in reading and math. But, on average, in 33 countries and economies, the share of top performers in science is larger among boys than among girls. Finland was the only country where girls were more likely to be top performers than boys.

Across OECD countries, on average, the gender gap in reading in favor of girls narrowed by 12 points between 2009 and 2015.

Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Puerto Rico participated as international benchmarking systems and received separate scores from the United States. Massachusetts’s average scores were higher than the U.S. and the international average scores in science, math and reading. North Carolina’s average scores were not statistically different from the U.S. average scores for all three subjects. And Puerto Rico’s average scores were lower than both the average U.S. scores and the international average scores for all three subjects.


The PISA test is conducted every three years. Schools in each country are randomly selected, and OECD says the selection of schools and students is kept as inclusive as possible so that student samples are drawn from a broad range of backgrounds and abilities.

Another international test, known as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, or TIMSS, had similar international comparisons with Asian countries solidly outperforming American students. That test, though, administered every four years to a random sampling of younger students in dozens of countries, had eighth graders in the U.S. improving their scores in math, up nine points. Scores for science, however, were flat. In fourth grade, scores were unchanged in math and science.

Click here to see our full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak. Submit your coronavirus news tip.

Be the first to know
Get web push notifications from Star-Advertiser when the next breaking story happens — it's FREE! You just need a supported web browser.
Subscribe for this feature
Comments (10)

By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Terms of Service. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. Report comments if you believe they do not follow our guidelines.

Having trouble with comments? Learn more here.

Leave a Reply

  • One of the keys to fix this problem is to better educate our math teachers and to give our pre-k and k students an excellent background in early math. Our Keiki can do anything if given encouragement and a chance….

    • I believe and have said this for 20 years. Get rid of the computers and tech stuff till kids are in high school. Bring back text books, rulers, protractors…… Kids get enough of the technology at home during play.
      If we are going to raise kids that contribute to society, there needs to be the basics without the technology. This goes for physical education. Kids nowadays do not get out of the house and participate in sports, clubs, and other extra-curricular activities that promote physical and social skills that phones, pads, notes, and games have taken away from our kids.

    • Back to basics, remember the 3 R’s? To hell with this common core bs which was set up the liberal’s to keep our kids ‘stupid’ so they could be ‘controlled’.

  • The problem is that math is so abstract. It’s difficult to understand how trig, geometry, and calculus can be put to practical real-world use. I hated calculus until in college they started to teach how it could be used in building bridges, performing economic analysis, etc. Then it suddenly became interesting.

    High school math classes should stop trying to force kids to blindly memorize how to solve hundreds of equations and instead focus on application of higher math to solve real-world problems. Force feeding kids a hundred formulas is only going to make them hate the subject.

  • It all started with getting away from the basics and new math, whatever that is. Learning to add and subtract, the times table (memorized) worked very well. Was disavowed by those who didn’t practice You don’t get goos at anything unless you practice!.

    • That would be worrisome if it were true. A simple click on Wikipedia will show that the education systems of India and the US are so fundamentally different that “graduating from high school” as a point of comparison is essentially meaningless. India has made great strides with a huge population using it’s “10+2+3” program and has made a lot of progress with traditionally poorly educated castes and special needs students. About 29% of children attend private schools and a much higher percentage in urban areas. Children who reach the age of 14 years are no longer under India’s compulsory education law and are free to leave school and to try to find jobs.

  • Another not discussed aspect when talking about subjects like math, is the average IQ of the populations in different countries.

    Singapore, which is best at Math, happens to be the highest at 108, followed by South Korea at 106.
    The US weighs in at 98.
    There are countries which are as low as 70.

    The US is a heterogenous country and its mix of talents will be related to the talents of the source countries of these populations.
    I am sure IQ is a combination of genetics and environment, but ignoring the base genetics leaves out part of the equation.
    If you took the averages in the US on the basis of ethnic ancestry, which is not easy or always possible, the results might be interesting.

    In any case, we have real diversity of ancestry, making for talents in areas other than a narrowly measured IQ.
    This should not be confused with forced diversity, in which you try to cram people into preselected categories to satisfy a political agenda.

    • Cricket. You sorta hit on a point that people in education don’t like to discuss much: diversity in populations. (Personally, I’m not fond of any of the instruments that purport to measure a quantity called IQ and the numbers cited for countries’ “averages” often come from organizations that have a vested interest.)

      When you are talking about the rather complex quantity of diversity though, I think you are hitting on one of the big reasons for international disparity in various test scoring. (there are some others like how samples are selected and the validity of the instruments but that gets way beyond the scope of a forum comment.)

      If you look at the US and take an instrument like the NAEP for example, you do find some correlations. (one of the things I’ve been looking at is socio-economic diversity measures and there are not a lot in the literature) The example that I like to use is Hawaii and California. They are very different places yet they seem to have similar levels of socio-economic diversity and their NEAP scores have been remarkably similar over the years. Most of the other variables don’t account for this.

      Finland is the one that most often comes up and professional writers don’t usually take into account that the country is remarkably homogeneous when compared to the US for example.

Scroll Up