U.S. 15-year-olds lag, mainly in math, on international tests

Fifteen-year-olds in the United States score in the middle of the developed world in reading and science while lagging in math, according to international standardized test results.

While the performance of American students who took the exams in 2012 differed little from the performance of those tested in 2009, the last time the exams were administered, several comparable countries – including Ireland and Poland – pulled ahead.

As in previous years, scores of students in Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and South Korea put those school systems at the top of the rankings for math, science and reading. Finland slid in all subjects but continued to outperform the averages and the United States.

The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, was administered to 15-year-olds in 65 countries and school systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that includes the world’s wealthiest nations. More than 6,100 American students took the exams.

The United States’ underperformance was particularly striking in math, where 29 countries or education systems had higher test scores. In science, students in 22 countries did better than Americans, and in reading, 19 countries.

Amid increasingly polarized discussions about public education, the scores set off a familiar round of hand-wringing, blaming and credit-taking.

“The United States’ standings haven’t improved dramatically because we as a nation haven’t addressed the main cause of our mediocre PISA performance – the effects of poverty on students,” Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, said in a statement.

Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the liberal Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said he put little stock in the PISA results. He said educators and academics should “stop hyperventilating” about international test rankings, particularly given that students are graduating from college at higher rates than can be absorbed by the labor market.

An increasingly vocal group of parents, teachers, union leaders and others have objected to a focus on standardized tests at the expense of values such as creativity.

“The question is, can we walk and chew gum at the same time?” said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education policy group. “There’s no reason why we can’t keep the creativity that we value while also teaching kids how to do math better.”