NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Putting American Student Performance in Perspective

March 17, 2011

The latest results of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) garnered all the usual headlines about America's lackluster performance and the rise of competitor nations.  And to be sure, the findings -- that America's 15-year-olds perform in the middle of the pack in both reading and math -- are disconcerting for a nation that considers itself an international leader, priding itself on its home-grown innovation, intellect and opportunity, say Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president, and Janie Scull, a research analyst and production associate, at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But that's not the entire story.  Particularly among other industrialized and advanced nations, the United States still has the upper hand in one critical measure -- size.  In their brief analysis, Petrilli and Scull analyze the data to compare the PISA performance of the United States and 33 other nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Among the findings:

  • In raw numbers, the United States produces many more high-achieving students than any other OECD nation -- more high-achievers than France, Germany, and the U.K. combined (both in reading and in math).
  • On the downside, in raw numbers, the United States also produces many more low-achieving students (both in reading and in math) than any other OECD nation, including Mexico and Turkey.

Our top students outnumber high achievers in all other OECD countries -- but our worst performers outnumber their peers in other countries, too, say Petrilli and Scull.

Source: Michael J. Petrilli and Janie Scull, "American Achievement in International Perspective," Thomas B. Fordham Institute, March 15, 2011.

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