Top US students fare poorly in international PISA test scores, Shanghai tops the world, Finland slips

NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley's Briefing Slide on PISA results

NCES Commissioner Jack Buckley’s Briefing Slide on PISA results

Conventional wisdom is that top U.S. students fare well compared to their peers across the globe. According to this line of reasoning, the US doesn’t make it on the list of the top 25 countries in math (or top 15 in reading) because America has higher poverty and racial diversity than other countries do, which drags down the national average.


The latest 2012 PISA test results, released Dec. 3, 2013, show that the U.S. lags among 65 countries (or sub country entities) even after adjusting for poverty. Top U.S. students are falling behind even average students in Asia. I emphasize Asia because Asian countries (or sub entities) now dominate the top 10 in all subjects: math, reading and science.

In descending order from the top spot in math, they are (1) Shanghai, (2) Singapore, (3) Hong Kong, (4) Taipei, (5) Korea, (6) Macao, (7) Japan, (8) Lichtenstein, (9) Switzerland and (10) the Netherlands. Most of these countries are also posting top-of-the charts reading scores. (Here’s the global list. See Table 1.A on page 19. I also chain the list — in two parts — at the bottom of the post for those who are having trouble clicking on the pdf file. Click on it to see a larger full-screen version.)

Let’s break down the data for the 2012 PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) taken by 15 year olds around the world.

* The United States has a below average share of top performers in mathematics. Only 2% of students in the United States reached the highest level (Level 6) of performance in mathematics, compared with an OECD average of 3% and 31% of students in Shanghai, the top performing entity in this year’s PISA test.

* Students at the 90th percentile in the United States — the very top — are below the average student in Shanghai. Top U.S. students scored 600 in math. The average score in Shanghai was 613. (Click on chart at the top right of the page to see this in more detail).

* Massachusetts, the top performing state in the nation, did not come close to the top 10 in math. Their 15 year olds scored a 514 in mathematics, placing the state even with Germany at number 16. (To put this in context, Germany is alarmed by how low its PISA scores are.) Massachusetts did prove better in reading. Only three education systems scored higher.

* Poverty rates alone do not explain low U.S. test scores. In a telephone briefing, Andres Schleicher explained that the OECD attempted to adjust test scores for income and put all the students of the world on a level playing field. It turns out that the US has slightly lower poverty and diversity than other OECD countries on average. The average U.S. test score dropped after making this adjustment.

* There is also a problem at the bottom end in the United States. The scores of low-income Americans are exceedingly low. The U.S. has a higher percentage of kids that can’t even hit the lowest levels on the math tests than other OECD countries do on average. So, it is true that the scores of poor U.S. students are dragging the average down. Still, absent poor students, U.S. scores would still be low.

Interesting tidbits:

* Finnish slide. Seven years ago, U.S. educators  and policy makers were all traveling to Finland, trying to understand the secrets behind its high achievement.  Finland declined between 2006-2009 and again between 2009-2012, scoring 548 in math in 2006 and 519 in 2012. Finland is firmly out of the top 10 in math and science, although its reading scores are still high. The OECD’s Andres Schleicher says that demographic changes and immigration have not been high enough to explain the test score slide and it’s a bit of a mystery.

* Poland is showing substantial increases in test scores on all three tests, rising well above the United States.

* Vietnam’s debut on the list is very impressive. This high poverty nation falls between Austria and Germany at #17.

* Stagnation. U.S. scores on PISA exams haven’t improved over the past decade. See here. That’s a bit of a contrast from the NAEP exam where American students have been showing modest improvement. I believe the NAEP exam plays to U.S. strengths of simple equation solving. It has fewer word problems where students have to apply their knowledge to a new circumstance and write their own equations and models.

* Shanghai was also the top performer in 2009. Other provinces in China are expected to start reporting PISA results beginning with the next  2015 test and have similarly high scores.

* Asia rising. Notice the strong gains among the top performing countries. Shanghai, Singapore, and the next four education systems are all posting strong annual gains on their PISA tests. It may be that top US students aren’t getting weaker, but stagnating, while the rest of the world, especially Asia, is getting stronger.

* $$$$:  The OECD data show almost no link between spending on education and PISA test results. Wealthier nations tend to score better. But the amount of money that a nation spends on education doesn’t seem to matter much. The United States is one of the biggest spenders in education, spending $115,000 per student on average between the ages of 6 and 15. The Slovak Republic spends less than half that amount at achieves similar test scores. Only four countries spend more than the United States: Austria, Norway, Luxembourg and Switzerland.

* Test quality. I took sample questions from the 2012 PISA math test and was impressed with the sample questions. Many are not multiple choice. So you can’t always use a Princeton Review technique of eliminating answer choices. You have to calculate answers yourself. I was also surprised by how many word problems there were in which you had to come up with models and equations yourself and not just solve for x in a given equation.

* Cheating. In previous posts and among colleagues, questions are coming up about cheating, especially in China. I haven’t seen evidence of widespread cheating on PISA tests that would affect a nation’s score. I know that an outside Australian contractor is involved in administering the PISA tests in China. But please comment if you have any information on PISA cheating.

Take away:

Yes, the United States has an achievement gap. Poor students are doing poorly. But our top students are nothing to brag about.

Related Stories:

Shanghai likely to repeat strong results on international PISA test in December (Nov. 18, 2013)

Data Debate: Smartest U.S. states don’t hold a candle to global competitors (Oct. 30, 2013)

Unclear where U.S. students stand in math and science (Oct. 25, 2013)

Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 12.12.23 PM
Screen Shot 2013-12-03 at 12.14.21 PM

POSTED BY Jill Barshay ON December 3, 2013

Comments & Trackbacks (31) | Post a Comment


Well, most people will be dubious that large immigration and poverty has no affect on test scores. Also, I am not seeing an analysis of how these countries are culturally different (rather how those in the U.S. embraced bread and circuses 25 years ago…including abandoning previous parenting methods). The film Two Million Minutes contrasts these characteristics in great form. ALSO, the teachers in Finland are now under pressure to be more like the American educations system with “standards” and lots of testing…the delusion of Common Core is growing.

Jill Barshay

@X I agree that cultural difference must account for many of the differences in test scores. There must be something to the Asian stereotype of prizing hard work and perseverance that is playing out in PISA test scores now. By contrast, American culture prizes some sort of notion of inherent ability and being able to do things effortlessly and quickly. Asian classrooms also benefit from a culture of good behavior where more classroom time can be devoted to instruction.

The OECD PISA report in its country specific overview of the United States suggests that Common Core, if implemented properly, could help boost the achievement of American 15 year olds. Curious to hear the other side.

Raymond Palmer

Please stop referring to Shanghai as a country…we must compare apples to apples…do we have data from charter and private schools?
Thanks and have a great day!

Jill Barshay

@ R Palmer. I agree that it’s not fair to compare Shanghai with the whole of the United States and I cannot wait until 2015 when we will have more testing data from other regions in China. But I think it is fair to compare Shanghai with Massachusetts and see how badly our top performing state is doing. A 100 point difference!

I don’t see a break out for private and charter schools but students from these institutions are part of the representative sample used to calculate national PISA figures.

Tom Hesse

Not everyone from every country is going to go to university and study math and science, and I cant deny these are much needed skills. although practical skills like driving tractors , repairing roads, building an overpass , plumbing, electrical, cement work, carpenters, chefs,welders the list goes on and on, are very much needed as well. Can a person with high math scores drive a tractor? I dont know, but what I do know is that Korean kids dont know the first thing about how to change a tire on a car,and the question is not on the PISA exam!!! I also know country kids in America that cant read well ,but can fix and tell me all about the hydraulic system on a backhoe, more than a university engineering student . These technical questions are not on PISA. You cant deny these practical skills need a special set of intelligence,much different than tested for on the PISA exam, but these skills are much needed in society too. Also, the test is given to 15 year olds,as we all know each one of us has a different maturity rate. It is said in Korea that students study hard to enter university, but after they enter then they stop studying,and the university is not good. But in America, it is more difficult with different standards to complete the degree than Asia. In the long run , just memorizing a formula for a test and then forgetting it is not productive.

Jill Barshay

@R Palmer. Your question inspired me to dig into the data deeper and I was able to find a private school breakout. As expected, private school students have much stronger reading scores than public school students, but the private-public gap is not nearly as big in math and science. And when you compare US private school kids with private school kids abroad, we are again mediocre.

[…] Not very reassuring: Top US students fare poorly in international PISA test scores, Shanghai tops the world, Finland slip… […]


You have no credibility. You fail to acknowledge that Chinese govt only choose to share the Shanghai and not data from other twelve provinces. If you don’t know that shame on you. If you do know shame on you. The US top data of 600 on math does well versus realistic benchmarks and indeed helps demonstrate that US major issue is poverty. Of course Shanghai is a sterling extreme example of math success, and something to learn from, but it is not a basis to trash US education.


Many writers and critics of public education in the United States will take these average scores to again bash educators and our educational system. The PISA scores are complex and need to be examined closely before broad conclusions are drawn about weaknesses and strengths in our current system. Analyses from the 2009 found that socioeconomic status and levels of poverty are highly related to US scores on the PISA. Finland had been singled out as the star of education due to it’s high average score on the PISA. However, their low poverty rate (under 10%) may account for that. In fact, on the 2009 PISA US schools with a poverty rate of under 10% had higher average scores than Finland.

We also need to look at the sampling they took (only 6000 US students). In 2009 they sampled a disproportionally large numbers of students from poverty so all our averages were lower than they should have been.

Unfortunately the policy makers in our country have a free market educational system agenda and will use the simple averages to push that agenda. As other posters have noted, the US has a problem with poverty and education. That’s what our debate should focus on.

Jill Barshay

@lloyd I would like to put together a graph comparing poverty rate with average test score for the 2012 PISA. That would be interesting. And I agree that the US has a problem with poverty and education. Our NAEP scores tell us that every year. What’s interesting about these international comparisons is that they are showing that the US has a problem at every percentile level, not just our bottom. Our top is below the top elsewhere. So our our middle students. It is particularly interesting that our top 90 percentile has actually been regressing and slipping backward. To my surprise, the lowest students in the United States have been improving and gaining ground.

Jill Barshay

@steve Top US students (90th percentile) rank 34th in the world in math. if you take out shanghai, we’re 33rd.


Using the OECD’s index of social, economic, etc… doesn’t directly relate to relative poverty. There are silly things measured such as “classical” culture in the family home. I find little value in this analysis.

What is more direct is using free/reduced lunch rates in comparing outcomes.

Sarah K

Why is China allowed to break out scores by province? They’ve got 3 top spots. Was that always the case or are country’s slipping as China gets more spots. So shouldn’t the US break out into 50 states and just report our top 3? I don’t know why we put so much importance on tests. It seems to me the more they try to “fix” the scores, the more damage they do.

Jill Barshay

@Sarah K You make a good point that it is not fair to cherry pick your best regions and compare them with the entirety of other nations. But even if we cherry picked our best state in the nation, Massachusetts, it would not make the top 10 in Math. That would be true even if we consolidated Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macao into one entity. (Massachusetts’s 15 year olds scored a 514 in mathematics).


As usual there is alway the one, two or ten who can’t see the forest for the trees. Forget cherry picking Chinese districts, immigration and poverty issues — these are just loud noises clouding the real issue. No matter how you slice it and dice it — our country is not producing high scores relative to many other countries. I am sick of our excuse driven society. Steve, Loyd and Sarah K — I really don’t care that China cherry picks their submissions — notice where the US lands on the list. Lop off the top five and we still fair poorly. Get it?? Our educational system is broke. Yes — it is broke and stop making excuses!


Interesting how we make assumptions based on all this data. Asian American students outperform students in Asian Countries on the PISA, coming in second after Shanghai. Is our system in the US proven to be better when we teach Asian students than the Asian countrys system? Statistics show third generation Asian Americans perform no better than other Americans. Does this support the idea that it is culture rather than the education system? It is very easy to quote statistics, but problematic to make generalizations based on that data. I don’t have the answers but I do know that education isn’t global testing competition and that statistics can be misleading.


Ok, does this mean China is producing the greatest inovators and problem solvers in the world that the world is looking upto? Or are the students hand picked by their government for their superior test taking skills and isolated and funded and tutored to excel to prove that force and coercion produces better citizens??!!! So, the US education system that produced all the innovators who actually contributed to this newfound boom in China is now not good enough!! So we have to test well so we lose our ability to think for ourselves and instead become drones like them.. What Chinese innovation does the world use these days?? NONE


As near as I can tell, the claim that US education improves dramatically if one adjusts for poverty holds true in the case of both Science and Reading scores, but not for Math scores. Is there any particular reason why that would be? Is math just intrinsically harder for most people, or does the US system simply fail to approach that subject adequately? And why that subject but not the other two?

Also, according to this article, the closest the US can claim to a consolation prize in terms of its math performance is that it is still technically the *Western* nation with the largest amount of top-performing students in math in absolute numbers (#3 overall). The million dollar question is twofold: are there enough top-performing students to fulfill the economic and professional demands of the country in the coming years (I am not sure average scores can answer this question), and how many problems- social, economic, and professional- are posed by our low performing students? I suspect there may be a difference between the broad educational imperative of getting every kid the best possible education and the more narrow present and future demands of the professional workforce.


Shanghai is not the cherry in China in terms of school performance.

When I was at the age for college 23 years ago in mainland China, I had to score 60 more points than a Shanghai student in the annually held nationwide exam covering 7 subjects to get admitted into the same university. This notorious disparity has extinguished university dreams of numerous students from other Chinese provinces/regions than Shanghai or Beijing.

Get ready for more surprise in 2015 when more Chinese students step down into the arena.

mary ellen elliott

Interesting–in this article “effect” was used, not “affect”. Ironic, given the topic of the article, hmmm?!

Jill Barshay

@maryellenelliott Thank you for catching my grammatical usage error. (Now fixed). Hope there will be fewer of these mizteaks going forward. As of two weeks ago, a (great) editor is proofreading my copy before we publish. :)

Jeri Gearhart

It’s not the education system that is broken. It is parenting. There was a time when parents made sure homework was done and children were reading instead of sitting in front of the tv. Can more be done-absolutely! First let’s quit having to teach Dare, anti-bullying, sex-ed, manners, hygiene etc etc. to these kids. It doesn’t surprise me that Asian students fare better. The standards for behavior are much higher! They also don’t teach classes that include special ed. We have classes with Down’s syndrome kids, kids with cerebral palsy and children with severe emotional outbursts. How can you teach a class with 30 kids, when one child is running around trying to stab their neighbors with a pair of scissors and another screaming obscenities! Bet you don’t see that in China!

Mickey Chick

While the poverty issue is certainly problematic, why does no one acknowledge that other countries do not educate every child? In addition, those who do are weeded into vocational or academic tracks prior to these tests being administered. PISA is not comparing apples to apples, but that sure doesn’t sell Pearson textbooks and tests, does it?

Danielle Jones

Until other countries test all of their students and not just those on the college track, PISA rankings will continue to be almost meaningless.

Tom Hesse

Thank you Danielle Jones. I am a teacher in Korea and have been one in China as well, and I have witnessed the selection of the test takers,which is empirical information that the stats dont reveal. They only select the top performers to take the test.Jill Barshay ,you are being bamboozled by the stats,and you should be embarrassed by your lack of research. These countries try to save face ,so they send the best to take the test. In addition I have friends who were teachers in Taipai, same is true there.
All of my students both high school and university think there are only five continents in the world. They dont know about Antarctica,and then tell me that it is not a continent because people dont live there. This is a small example, but this question is not on the test. Of course they do better they have more study time put into test prep for just that test.The American students spend less time studying math because they dont go to hagwons to prep until 11pm, so on average the Asian students need to study more to get the same results as the American students , so they actually do better because thats all they do is prep for that test. The American students spend time doing other things like after school clubs, sports,
and other activities. The American kids are more well rounded in many other subjects. Then if the Asian education is so good than why do so many Asians want to go to school in USA? It is just a test and only tests specific things. There are so many kids that dont score well on a test, but have mechanical,analytical and other aptitudes
that is never tested for. Each country is different and cant be compared with a simple test. Testing has been a controversial issue for a long time. In Korea and China I have had discussions with the brightest students in high school and University and they still believe in fan death and many other strange illogical things. Some of my high school students I have taught , have no idea what a periodical element chart is…..Stats dont lie, and I accept there are still alot of student who like to study and alot that dont, but you can lie and be bamboozled with stats,,,,it doesnt tell the whole story… Jill Barshay you need to do due diligence and go to these countries and find the truth.

Tom Hesse

In addition, I know top high school and university students in Korea and China and they have no idea what a gyroscope is or how it works, along with many other practical things like explaining static electricity, how a circuit works, photosynthesis etc., and its not a language problem,because even in their own language they cant do it,and these questions arent on the PISA.
yet they are trained to remember in the short run to take the test and forget after, to do mindless calculations that have no practical application,thats what computers are for. Yes you need to understand the process,but then let the computer process it. It is interesting to note that the US also accounts for 22 percent of ICT-skilled workers worldwide, followed by India with 10.4 percent and China with 7.6 percent. What happened ,I thought these very same countries who scored high on PISA at 15 years old,with such a large population both countries should have more, , later in life the US kids catch up.
when you take a test you need to memorize all kinds of formulas, in the real world you can research it and look it up and have machines , computers do the work, Einstein said why waste my time remembering some mindless formula if I can look it up, and use my brain power for more important things. The PISA is unrealistic measure.
NO , I am not making excuses, the education system can always be improved and being educated is important we need that everyone has their set of intelligence, but the USA is a melting pot of many cultures, accepting people from every part of the world. You dont see this in China, but in Korea it is happening. So whats the choice ,turn my kids into sleepless stressed out beings for the sake of taking a test for economic gain because than I can go to this important school to get a good job, or have a higher quality life that we can all enjoy here together without worrying about my score on the est.


Americans ARE dumber. They’re STUPID.
The school system is biased towards certain students.
They collect enough property taxes on artificially inflated real estate prices propped up by counterfeit subprime enabled realtors with teaser rate loans.
Look at it this way.
They get subsidies on their houses to get these lifted truck/SUVs to drive their diobese kids to school instead of taking the busses that we already paid for . The teachers are well educated and compensated until the Unions take that money away.
The whites at a local school only have 50% that could pass basics on math, English and science on an EASY national proficiency exam.
The latinos only have a 15% and whine about the language barrier.
The blacks have a whopping 4% that can pass a basic national proficiency math exam at their grade level.
Yet they get strong grades and 78% of their class graduates every year!
This is the hard work and dedicated effort made by underrepresented minorities to protect the threatened baby boomer status quo.
Not that we needed the money to fix our own creds for the changing job market or anything.
A girl in California got straight As in school but got a 35% on her ASVAB TWICE. She couldn’t get into the U.S. Military.

BUT! They do drugs in class!

I hate the U.S.
I remember trying my high school concentration was thwarted by the rednecks and one who was a family member that physically assaulted me on my way to school every morning. The bible thumpers, teaching staff, admin- nobody helped.

Nobody EARNS their job or their keep anymore, it’s nepotistic and “fixed” with affirmative action that bars “overrepresented minorities” from access to a LIVING WAGE in PURCHASING POWER.

The boomers who run this country are soooo dumb.


It is extremely difficult to think of america and not simultanously think of morons


This is what common core is suppose to fix. And hopefully the teachers who are complaining about the testing for accountability will not get their way. Not sure at what point education became so lax but I know the reasons. Too many complaining parents who, didn’t want there child to get low grades, so they demanded teachers teach less and test easier. This was just dumb.

Maybe the better answer would have been to make your child study harder? Learn more? I don’t blame the teachers as much as I blame over zealous parents who join PTA’s and can’t accept their child may not be a 100% grade level math student. Or they can’t accept their child is a C student. So they demand their schools to dumb themselves down until that C now becomes the new A. And obviously because they are PTA members and heavily involved with their child’s school, that’s exactly what happens. Suddenly their Childs C grades, all magically become the new A’s.

Kevin Nguyen

From all that I’ve read, America has never been near the top for international testing since it began; yet, we are still here. There are plenty of problems with American schooling, but stressing out over the PISA test is not the right way to go about it. There’s been an education crisis (followed by foolhardy legislative reform) every decade in the U.S. since the mid 1900s; yet here we stand.

As a HS math teacher, I feel the primary problem of the United States is the false idea that college is for everyone. Though I believe anyone can go to college, college is definitely not for everyone. What results is a lifetime of fitting square pegs into round holes, and all curriculum and standardized testing is based on forcing everyone to aim for college. Vocational schooling has become a bad word in U.S. education policy, and that must change.


The problem here is the inefficiency of the school and the system. I’m from the Netherlands, a small country with 17 mil. people. I live in Texas now and if i see what, and how my kids learn here in public school, it’s said to say, but it is BAD!!!!!! They only focus on tests, scores, and ther is almost no time for free play recess! That is not the way to do it. America can learn a lot from my country and the way we treat kids in school. They go to school less hours, much much more recess and still make the top 10 of the world! And yes, we have also a LOT of foreigners from all over the world so thats not an issue. The kids here can not be realy kids. Studies proved that the kids in the Netherlands are the happiest in the world and i’m not surprised.

Your email is never published nor shared.