Penn Report Challenges View that U.S. Students Are Losing Ground Internationally

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Media Contact:Matt Gray | mtgray@pobox.upenn.edu | 215-898-4820December 14, 2004

PHILADELPHIA -- An analysis of major international achievement surveys since 1990 shows that, while the U.S. may not be first in the world in terms of education, U.S. students generally perform above average, according to Erling Boe, a professor in the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education.

Among the biggest problems with many international surveys is the fact that they make inaccurate or unfair comparisons, Boe said.

As an example, Boe points to the 1995 Trends in International Math and Science Survey, which was reported to show U.S. high school students outscored by every surveyed nation other than Lithuania, Cyprus and South Africa.

"This is a misconception, however, because the TIMSS 1995 tests were administered to students during the 'final year of secondary school' as defined by each participating nation," Boe wrote.  

For the U.S., secondary school ends with the 12th grade but for other countries lasts much longer.

A much fairer comparison can be made by looking at data from the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment survey, which looks at 22 industrialized nations'10th-grade test scores and shows that "the average combined score of U.S. students in all three subjects [reading, mathematics and science} falls at about the international average," Boe said.

Boe argues that, if the main concern of those lamenting the state of American public education is economic competitiveness, it makes more sense to look at how the U.S. compares to other G7 nations instead of comparing it to minor economic powers, such as Iceland and Finland.

"With respect to academic achievement, the U.S. is quite comparable to other major Western nations and should have little to fear in losing out economically," Boe said.