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How Are U.S. Students Doing

Each state has developed its own assessments of student progress in a variety of subjects, but the tests differ so much there is no way to reasonably compare students based on these exams. To circumvent this problem, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was developed and is probably the most widely cited data source when discussing student achievement in the United States. This nationally representative assessment of what America's students know and can do is administered periodically to students in grades 4, 8, and 12 in mathematics, science, and other subjects.

The 2005 NAEP once again highlighted a more than decade old problem with respect to science and math achievement in the U.S. The data show that 37% of 4th graders, 40% of 8th graders, and 43% of 12th graders lack a basic level of science proficiency. On the 2009 mathematics assessment, 82% of students reached the basic level but only 39% were considered proficient and those numbers dropped to 73% and 34%, respectively, by 8th grade.

That is, the number of students who are proficient decreases the longer our children are in school. Further, given that the 2007 national freshman graduation rate for public schools was only 73%, (Cataldi, 2009) one can infer that overall student achievement is likely significantly lower. (To read more about the NAEP test, see Understanding NAEP.)

International measures of U.S. student performance are no more encouraging. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s External Web Site Policy) (OECD) 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment External Web Site Policy (PISA) of 15 yr olds found that

  • U.S. students ranked 21st in science proficiency and 25th in math among students from the 30 OECD countries
  • On average, 1.3% of 15-year-olds reach the highest level on the PISA science scale, but in Finland and New Zealand over 3.9% did so while in the United States only 1.5% did.
  • Among U.S. students, 49% and 54% scored at or below the basic skill level in science and math, respectively.
To read more about how these assessments were conducted, how students in the United States scored, and how they compare with students in other countries, see PISA: International Science Proficiency

Data from the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement's External Web Site Policy TIMSS 2007 International Science Report External Web Site Policy is consistent with the NAEP and PISA exams. U.S. students ranked 8th of 36 and 11th of 49 in 4th and 8th grades, respectively, but 13 countries that scored higher than the United States on the 2003 PISA exam, including Finland, Canada, and the United Kingdom, did not participate in TIMSS.

As with the NAEP findings, the TIMSS data indicate that relative performance deteriorates over time. U.S. 4th-grade students score an average of 539 compared to 520 for 8th graders. (The TIMSS scale is set to an average score of 500.)

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