Showing barely any change in nine years, American 15-year-olds scored below their international peers in math, reading and science, test results released Tuesday show.

Among 34 developed countries, the United States ranked 26th in math, 21st in science and 17th in reading -- none of them significantly different from previous PISA tests. The top performer in math was Shanghai, scoring the equivalent of three grade levels above the average. It was followed by Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, South Korea, Macau and Japan, then Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

At the bottom were Qatar, Indonesia and Peru.

The 34 countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and 31 partner countries and economies, ranging from Albania to Vietnam, participated in the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA for short. In 2012, PISA assessed 510,000 students, mostly 15-year-olds. PISA sampled students in each country and released results for nations and some states.

In the United States, state-level results were released only for Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida.

Students took two hours of tests on paper, a combination of multiple-choice and free answer questions.


Advertisement

The United States had a below-average percentage of students in the top two performance levels of math, and more than one-quarter at the lowest level, a proportion that hasn't changed since 2003. Above the bottom level, according to PISA, students begin to show skills that enable them to participate effectively and productively in life.

While American students showed skill in some math areas, such as simple handling of data from charts and diagrams, they were weak in using pi and geometric reasoning, as well as applying math in real-world and advanced applications.

Graphic shows scores for PISA test for U.S. and other nations; 3c x 4 inches; 146 mm x 101 mm;
Graphic shows scores for PISA test for U.S. and other nations; 3c x 4 inches; 146 mm x 101 mm; (Graphic shows scores for PISA test for U.S. and other nations; 3c x 4 inches; 146 mm x 101 mm; )

The dismal showing comes despite the United States spending more per student than nearly all other countries. Spending $115,000 annually per student, the United States performed about the same as the Slovak Republic, which spends $53,000 per student.

The question, said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, is "Why are we not getting more bang for the buck?"

Critics of federal education policies blamed high-stakes testing and programs pushed by Presidents Bush and Obama. "None of the top-tier countries," said Randi Weingarten head of the American Federation of Teachers, "nor any of those that have made great leaps in student performance, like Poland and Germany, has a fixation on testing like the United States does."

For those who blame U.S. diversity for low scores, dissecting results produces more sobering detail. The top quarter of U.S. students performed substantially below the top quarter around the world.

In some countries, with widely varying resources and populations, family background does not weigh as heavily as it does in the United States, said Andreas Schleicher, OECD deputy director for education and PISA coordinator. Many countries, such as Germany, have taken a lesson from previous PISA results and improved schools -- and results, Schleicher said.

The report found that students attending preschool score 53 points higher in math, the equivalent of one year in school, over their non-preschool-attending peers. And countries like Estonia and Finland have narrowed achievement gaps, showing that high performance is possible for all students.

Despite the low and stagnant U.S. scores, education leaders take hope that scores will improve. States are transitioning to new ways of teaching based on the Common Core State Standards, goals that were crafted in part to correct weaknesses highlighted by previous PISA results.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.

Where U.S. 15-year-olds stand
Out of a possible 600 points:
Math: 481
Reading: 498
Science: 497
Among 34 developed countries:
26th in math
21st in science
17th in reading
Among the 65 countries and economies taking the PISA test, U.S. math scores are:
Just below Russia and Slovakia, just above Lithuania, also near Norway, Portugal, Italy, Spain, Sweden and Hungary
Annualized change from 2003:
Math: +0.3 points
Reading -0.3 points
Science: +1.4 points