Despite recent instructional reforms, American students continue to struggle with math, according to the latest results of one of the most watched international assessments.
U.S. math scores have not budged significantly since 2003 on the Program for International Student Assessment and the country ranks 31st among 77 education systems worldwide, according to a report on the fall 2018 results released Dec. 3 by the National Center for Education Statistics, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education.
In the last decade, California, 40 other states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core, new academic standards in mathematics and English language arts. Many states, including California, have also adopted new science standards — all of which have required major shifts in instruction. But compared to other countries, test results show there’s a long way to go before these reforms can be dubbed a success.
The international assessment is administered to 15-year-olds every three years to measure literacy in reading, math and science, and scores are reported on a scale from 0 to 1,000. Average scores for U.S. students remained flat across all subjects last year compared to 2015 — when the U.S. saw a decline in math scores — according to the most recent results.
The U.S. did move higher in the rankings compared to other countries. However, that can largely be explained by declines in other countries’ average scores. From 2015 to 2018, the U.S. went from 15th to 8th in reading, 35th to 30th in math and 17th to 11th in science, when comparing the countries that participated in the assessment both years.
“At first that change that might sound like a cause for celebration, but it’s not,” said Peggy G. Carr, the associate commissioner of assessments for the National Center for Education Statistics, emphasizing how U.S. average scores remained flat. U.S. rankings have improved, she said, mainly because student scores in other countries have dropped.
The Program for International Student Assessment is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, an international governmental agency that includes 37 member countries.
In the United States, 4,800 students from more than 150 schools participated in 2018. The National Center for Education Statistics conducts the test in the U.S.
Students from Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Guangdong in China — which submitted scores separately from Macau and Hong Kong — scored the highest across each subject area in 2018. Singapore came in second in all three.
Other countries that outscored the U.S. in all three subjects include Estonia, Canada and Finland.
The most recent scores also show that the gap between students who score the highest and lowest on the assessment appears to be widening in both math and reading literacy in the U.S.
“In the past couple of months, we have reported a similar finding that there is a growing gap between our higher and lower performing students,” said Carr, referring to similar trends on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. “We see it in math literacy, but especially in reading literacy. They show significant improvement for those at the top. And the bottom are struggling.”
The Program for International Student Assessment measures literacy by focusing more on the application of skills and knowledge, while the National Assessment of Educational Progress measures knowledge that students acquire in school, Carr said. “NAEP is generally a bit more challenging than this literacy assessment,” she added.
One bright spot in the 2018 results is science. While average science scores for the U.S. did not significantly change between 2015 and 2018, scores went from 489 in 2006 — the earliest comparable year for the subject due to changes in the way results are reported — to 502 in 2018.
Scores for U.S. reading and math literacy have not changed significantly since the test was first implemented in 2000.
The U.S. average score in math was 478 out of 1,000. In reading, the U.S. average score was 505.
“Maybe we can convince ourselves that we are doing okay if we don’t look at the patterns of our lower and higher performers,” Carr said. “But in math there is a clear message: We are struggling in math in comparison to our peers around the world.”
The major focus of the international exam runs on a three-year cycle. In 2018 the major focus was reading, meaning the assessment covered more of this subject area compared with the other two subjects that are also tested. In 2015 the major domain was science, and in 2012 it was math.