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how does the U.S. compare

Regardless of the report, study or chart cited, it is clear that the United States ranks below many other countries in providing a world-class education in mathematics and science. For example:

  • On the 2006 PISA, the average U.S. score in mathematics literacy was 474, lower than the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average score of 498. Thirty-one OECD non-OECD jurisdictions/countries scored higher, on average, than the United States in mathematics literacy. In contrast, 20 jurisdictions scored lower than the United States in mathematics literacy in 2006. Some of the countries ahead of the United Stated include: Finland, Republic of Korea, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain, Chinese Taipei, Estonia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Latvia. (1)
  • Along with scale scores, the 2006 PISA uses six proficiency levels to describe student performance in science literacy, with level 6 being the highest. The United States had greater percentages of students below and at level 1 (25%) than the OECD average percentages on the combined science literacy scale (19%). (2)
  • In the United States, only 6% of 8th-grade students reached the advanced benchmark for international mathematics standards compared with: 45% for Chinese Taipei, 40% for the Republic of Korea, 40% for Singapore, 31% for Japan, 10% for Hungary, 8% for England and 8% for the Russian Federation. (3)  

Students in Massachusetts and Minnesota recently participated in a special TIMSS study that resulted in TIMSS scores for these states, as if they were individual countries. In math, students, on average, scored higher than or equal to students in all countries, except Singapore and Taiwan. In Minnesota, 4th-grade students performing at the advanced level doubled from 9% in 1995 to 18% in 2007 — one of the largest gains. (4)

In the American Institutes for Research (AIR) 2005 report, What the United States Can Learn From Singapore’s World-Class Mathematics System, interesting and startling findings were made: (5)

  • Singapore has a world-class mathematics system with quality components aligned to produce students who learn mathematics to mastery; the U.S. mathematics system does not.
  •  A mathematically logical, uniform national framework that develops topics in depth at each grade guides Singapore’s mathematics system. The U.S system, in contrast, has no official national framework.
  • Singapore recognizes that some students may have more difficulty in mathematics and provides them with an alternative framework; the U.S. frameworks make no such provisions.
  • Singapore’s textbooks build deep understanding of mathematical concepts through multi-step problems and concrete illustrations that demonstrate abstract mathematical concepts used in problem solving from different perspectives. Traditional U.S. textbooks rarely get beyond definitions and formulas.
  • The questions on Singapore’s high-stakes grade 6 Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) are more challenging than the released items on the U.S. grade 8 National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP).
  • Singaporean elementary school teachers are required to demonstrate mathematics skills superior to those of their U.S. counterparts before they begin teacher training. At every phase of preservice and postservice training, they receive more rigorous instruction both in mathematics content and in mathematics pedagogy.

Areas of strengths in the U.S. mathematics system according to the 2005 AIR report:

  • The U.S. frameworks give greater emphasis than Singapore’s framework does to developing important 21st century mathematical skills such as representation, reasoning, making connections and communications.
  • The United States places a greater emphasis on applied mathematics, including statistics, probability and real-world problem analysis.

The Asia Society, Business Roundtable and Council of Chief State School Officers’ report, Education in China: Lessons for U.S. Educators, compares the U.S. education system with China’s and presents the following recommendations for U.S. Leaders: (6)

  • Make learning about China and other world regions a top priority. Business, political and education leaders urgently need to stimulate a national discussion on the skill set American students will need to compete in the interconnected world of the 21st century.
  • Target the U.S. math-science achievement gap and get more of our students to succeed in a world-class curriculum in these vital subjects.
  • Redesign high schools for the global age to include international knowledge and skills and connections to schools in other countries.
  • Expand the study of Chinese, a language we as a nation can no longer afford to ignore, such that 5% of high school students are studying the language by 2015.
  • Benchmark American education policies to other high-achieving countries and incorporate international knowledge into the development of our future education leaders.

Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring U.S. Students Receive a World-Class Education, a report by The National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and Achieve, Inc., includes a section on Myths and Realities about International Comparisons (see Additional Resources).


  1. Stephane Baldi, Patricia J. Green, Deborah Herget, et al, Highlights From PISA 2006: Performance of U.S.15-Year-Old Students in Science and Mathematics Literacy in an International Context, 11-12 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, December 2007),

  2. Ibid, iv and 6.

  3. S. Brenwald, P. Gonzales, L. Jocelyn, et al, Highlights From TIMSS 2007: Mathematics and Science Achievement of U.S. Fourth- and Eighth-Grade Students in an International Context (NCES 2009-001), 16 (Washington D.C.: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, 2008),

  4. Sam Dillon, “Math Gains Reported for U.S. Students,” The New York Times, 10 December, 2008, p. A23,

  5. Terry Anstrom, Alan Ginsburg, Steven Leinwand, et al, What the United States Can Learn From Singapore’s World-Class Mathematics System, (Washington D.C.: American Institutes for Research, 28 January, 2005),

  6. Asia Society, Business Roundtable, Council of Chief State School Officers, Education in China: Lessons for U.S. Educators, September 2005,


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