US Students’ Academic Achievements: Performance Still Lags Behind OECD Peers

US Students’ Academic Achievements: Performance Still Lags Behind OECD Peers
Imed Bouchrika by Imed Bouchrika
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

While students in a country seem to fare well in their academics, how can that country verify that their learners are excelling on the world stage? This is where major cross-national education assessments like the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) come in. These programs provide benchmarks by which both developed and less developed countries can compare their students’ performance.

But once countries have the benchmark and have made the comparison, what happens next? How can they benefit from the data derived from these cross-national evaluations? These are among the key questions that this article will attempt to answer.

How U.S. Students Compare with Their Peers: Table of Contents

  1. Program for International Student Assessment
  2. What Changed Between PISA 2018 and PISA 2015?
  3. Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study
  4. National Assessment of Educational Progress

Program for International Student Assessment

The PISA is a cross-national assessment that gauges the mathematical, scientific, and reading abilities of 15-year-old students in different countries. It is spearheaded by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which first did its international test measuring students’ academic achievements in 2000. After that, the organization has been holding the assessment every three years, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES n.d.) explains. At first, only industrialized countries like the United States and the United Kingdom participated. Later on, though, even less-developed nations joined in the assessments.

The latest PISA, as of this writing, was held in 2018. At the time, 79 OECD and partner countries took part in the assessment.

The United States

In the 2018 PISA, 15-year-old students from the U.S. scored an average of 505 in reading. This was higher than the OECD average of 487 in the field. In mathematics, the students had a mean score of 478, which was lower than the OECD average of 489. Additionally, in science, the performance was higher than the OECD average (489), as the students attained a mean score of 502. Among the three subjects, U.S. students lagged behind the international average in mathematics (Education GPS, n.d.).

With these scores, the U.S. ranked 13th overall, putting it behind Sweden and New Zealand. It also achieved slightly higher scores than the U.K., Japan, Australia, and Chinese Taipei. However, when the sum of the mean scores is calculated, the U.S. ranked 22nd. That put the country behind Switzerland, Norway, and the Czech Republic and ahead of France, Portugal, and Austria (Armstrong, 2019).

The good news is, the U.S. has improved its PISA scores between 2015 and 2018. In 2015, 15-year-olds in the U.S. had an average score of 497 in reading according to the PISA International Data Explorer (2015). For mathematics, the overall average was 470. Lastly, in science, the students who participated in the assessment scored an average of 496.

The results show that 15-year-olds in the U.S. were most proficient in reading while they are not far behind in science. However, while they also did well in mathematics, there is a 20-point gap in the average scores.

Overall, American students placed 24th in reading, 38th in mathematics, and 25th in science. The total average of the students’ performance was 470. The OECD average was 490, putting the U.S. students’ academic achievement way below many of their OECD peers (Heim, 2016). This, despite the U.S. being home to many of the world’s top universities.

Despite the increase in U.S. scores, it is not that significant. There is much to be done if the U.S. wants to break into the top five in PISA. As Walker (2016) noted, the distribution of materials for quality education is necessary for lifting the performance of the American student-body.

The Rest of the World

Highest-Ranking Countries

The top five territories that had glowing results in the 2018 PISA were China (Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang), Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong, and Estonia, as reported by Barshay (2019). B-S-J-Z (China) had average scores of 555, 591, and 590 in reading, mathematics, and science, respectively.

Singapore had impressive results as well, according to the same report. Fifteen-year-old students from the Southeast Asian country averaged 549 in reading, 569 in mathematics, and 551 in science. The average scores of Macau, Hong Kong, and Estonia were only slightly significantly different from those of the two top performers.

Also in the top 10 were Canada, Finland, Ireland, South Korea, and Poland.

In the previous PISA 2015, Singapore came out on top for reading, mathematics, and science. Students from the small island-city state had average scores of 535, 564, and 556, respectively.

Hong Kong had the second-highest score in reading with an average of 527. Canada’s 15-year-old students garnered the same average score as well. Finland, Ireland, Estonia, South Korea, Japan, Norway, and New Zealand complete the top 10.

Macau, Chinese Taipei, and Japan follow behind Singapore in mathematics. In the field of science, Japan, Estonia, Chinese Taipei, and Finland make up the top five with Singapore.

Lowest-Ranking Countries

The Philippines, which joined PISA for the first time in 2018, had the lowest average scores. The participating students from the country’s private and public schools scored 340 in reading, 353 in mathematics, and 357 in science. The archipelago’s Department of Education (2019) released an official statement that confirmed the 2018 PISA results echoed the country’s own national assessment.

In the 2018 assessment, the Dominican Republic became the second-lowest instead. Furthermore, in the 2015 international academic evaluation, Lebanon had the lowest average score in reading with 347 points. The Dominican Republic had an average of 328, the lowest in the field of mathematics. And in the subject of science, the Caribbean country also trailed behind other countries with an average score of 332.

Source: Armstrong, 2019

What Changed Between PISA 2018 and PISA 2015?

In the 2015 PISA, Singapore led the pack. That honor went to China B-S-J-Z in 2018. In the previous PISA, Macau, Hong Kong, Estonia, and Japan were also in the top tier of the ranking. However, Japan slipped to 15th place the next time the assessment was held.

The performance of U.S. students in the earlier PISA only landed them in 31st place. Peers like the U.K., France, Sweden, Austria, and Spain were ahead. Indeed, most of the places above the U.S. are dominated by European countries. This is due to the fact the U.S. barely beat the OECD average in reading and science and was 20 points below the average in mathematics.

Out of all the countries that participated, the U.S. ranked 25th in science, 24th in reading, and 40th in mathematics. These are out of the 70 countries that participated (Coughlan, 2016).

These scores showed that U.S. performance has been consistent in science and reading. It is only in mathematics that there had been a significant difference, as trends show a decline (Walker, 2016).

The average scores that students from the U.S. garnered in mathematics in the 2018 PISA reinforced that trend. While the OECD average was 489 on the subject, U.S. learners who took the assessment only had an average score of 478. This puts them 11 points below the standard and in 36th place out of all the 79 participating countries and regions.

In sum, there was no significant statistical change between the 2018 and 2015 PISA scores. Moreover, U.S. PISA scores (particularly for the 15-year-old Americans) on all sections have been considerably even since the international test started in 2000 until the present.

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Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study or TIMMS is a study of the IEA. The project was first held in 1995. It is done every four years to measure students’ academic performance in science and mathematics. Only pupils in the fourth and eighth grades take part in the testing (IEA, n.d.).

The last published results of TIMSS were from the testing done in 2019. At the time, 60 countries took part in the assessment, including the U.S.

The United States

Fourth-graders in the U.S. placed 15th in mathematics with an average of 535, three points behind the Netherlands and two points ahead of the Czech Republic. U.S. students in the eighth-grade fared better in the subject: they landed in 12th place, averaging 515, as published by Mullis and colleagues (2020).

According to the same authors, in fourth-grade science, American students did well as they placed ninth with an average score of 539. This means they were 56 points behind the frontrunner, Singapore. Additionally, students from the U.S. were in 11th place in the realm of eighth-grade science with an average of 522 points.

These results show that the fourth- and eighth-graders in the U.S. had higher average scores than many of their peers in mathematics and science. Indeed, the NCES (2020) noted that the U.S. had a large gap between top and bottom performers. This is true for both subjects and grades. Moreover, there is no statistical difference between the average scores of the U.S., Austria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Flemish Belgium, Quebec, Cyprus, and Finland.

The Rest of the World

Leading the pack in the 2019 TIMSS was Singapore followed by four East Asian countries: Chinese Taipei, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong, Boston College (2020) reported. Fourth- and eighth-grade students from these geographical entities were way ahead of their peers in mathematics. However, when it came to science, while they were still strong, the results varied. In fourth grade, Singapore and South Korea were the highest-performing countries. There is then a 21-point difference before the Russian Federation and Japan, followed by Chinese Taipei and Finland. In eighth-grade science, Singapore was still strong and was 34 points ahead of Chinese Taipei, Japan, and South Korea. The Russian Federation and Finland also did well in this area.

However, beyond the test results, the TIMSS report showed that there is a compelling relationship between good behavior and high test scores. STEM Learning (2020) further pointed out that a safe and orderly school environment can greatly contribute to the sharp performance of students in assessments.

Source: TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center & IEA, 2020

National Assessment of Educational Progress

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a national testing project that the NCES holds among students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in selected states and districts. The agency explained that they are tested on their knowledge in mathematics, science, technology and engineering, reading, writing, arts, U.S. history, economics, geography, and civics (NCES, 2020).

The last NAEP in mathematics was held in 2019. That year, grade 4 students earned an average score of 241. Grade 8 students garnered an average score of 282 while the performance of grade 12 students led to an average of 150 only.

Students in the fourth, eighth, and 12th grades had average scores of 154, 154, and 150, respectively, in science. The last NAEP in science was conducted in 2015.

In terms of reading ability, fourth-grade students had a national average of 220. Meanwhile, grade 8 students performed well with an average of 263. Lastly, students in the 12th grade had a high average of 285.

The results of the 2019 NAEP also coincides with the performance of students in PISA 2018. Barshay (2019) pointed out that the achievement of U.S. students has not changed significantly over the past decade. Indeed, low-performing students’ assessment scores have not changed in 30 years.

Are Such Tests Significant in Today’s Educational Landscape?

The test results above, particularly that of PISA, show that the performance of U.S. students in subjects like mathematics, science, and reading, when compared to their peers, is only average. Instead, Asian countries like Singapore are moving up the ladder. This is despite the fact that the U.S. spends at least 3.6% of its GDP on primary, secondary, and post-secondary non-tertiary education. That makes the country the fourth biggest spender in that arena, after Norway, New Zealand, and the U.K. (Armstrong, 2020). On top of that, many of the education systems around the world mimic or are patterned after the American system.

The results demonstrate that the U.S. needs to step up its policymaking in education to improve teaching standards. The same goes for countries that do poorly in PISA, especially those that have average scores that were below the OECD average. Since the rankings on PISA also correlate to economic wellness, countries can utilize the data to formulate policies that can aid students in preparing better for the future so that they could contribute to their nations’ economies.

Furthermore, the U.S. and other countries can employ data from PISA and other international assessments for benchmarking purposes. By doing so, they could execute reforms that would allow them to reach for the best in education. Thus, they can become more innovative in their teaching methods and be creative in engaging students to learn.



  1. Armstrong, M. (2020, September 8). How much do countries spend on education? Statista.
  2. Barshay, J. (2020, March 30). What 2018 PISA international rankings tell us about U.S. schools. The Hechinger Report.
  3. Coughlan, S. (2016, December 6). Singapore first place in school rankings. BBC News.
  4. DepEd. (2019, December 4). Statement on the Philippines’ Ranking in the 2018 PISA Results. Pasig City, Metro Manila: Department of Education.
  5. OECD. (2020). United States. Education GPS.
  6. Heim, J. (2016, December 5). On the world stage, U.S. students fall behind. The Washington Post.
  7. TIMSS (n.d.). Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study. The Hague, The Netherlands: IEA.
  8. Mullis, I. V., Martin, M. O., Foy, P., Kelly, D. L., & Fishbein, B. (2020). TIMSS 2019: International results in mathematics and science. The Hague, The Netherlands: IEA.
  9. NCES. (2020, April 16). Assessments. Washington, DC: National Center of Education Statistics.
  10. NCES. (n.d.). Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) – Information for Students. Washington, DC: National Center of Education Statistics.
  11. PISA. (2015a). Averages for age 15 years PISA reading scale: overall reading, by All students [TOTAL] and jurisdiction: 2015. PISA International Data Explorer. Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  12. PISA. (2015b). Averages for age 15 years PISA mathematics scale: overall mathematics, by All students [TOTAL] and jurisdiction: 2015. PISA International Data Explorer. Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  13. PISA. (2015c). Averages for age 15 years PISA science scale: overall science, by All students [TOTAL] and jurisdiction: 2015. PISA International Data Explorer. Paris, France: Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
  14. STEM Learning. (2020, December 9). Latest TIMSS results published.

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