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International test score data show U.S. firmly mid-pack

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 7, 2010; 6:00 AM

After a decade of intensive efforts to improve its schools, the United States posted these results in a new global survey of 15-year-old student achievement: average in reading, average in science and slightly below average in math.

Those middling scores lagged significantly behind results from several countries in Europe and Asia in the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to be made public Tuesday.

South Korea is an emerging academic powerhouse. Finland and Singapore continue to flex their muscles. And the Chinese city of Shanghai, participating for the first time in the Program for International Student Assessment, topped the 2009 rankings of dozens of countries and a handful of sub-national regions.

U.S. officials said the results show that the nation is slipping further behind its competitors despite years spent seeking to raise performance in reading and math through the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and a host of other reforms.

"For me, it's a massive wake-up call," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday. "Have we ever been satisfied as Americans being average in anything? Is that our aspiration? Our goal should be absolutely to lead the world in education."

The Obama administration is likely to use the results to press Congress next year to rewrite the federal education law to prod states to do more to help the lowest-performing schools. The District and dozens of states -- including Maryland but not Virginia -- have also approved new national academic standards that are meant to make U.S. schools more competitive.

On Monday in North Carolina, President Obama warned that the United States faces a "Sputnik moment," needing innovations akin to the effort to put a man on the moon after the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into orbit in 1957.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a 34-nation organization, based in Paris, that seeks to promote sustainable growth, world trade and higher living standards. Its testing program tracks the knowledge and problem-solving abilities of 15-year-olds every three years.

The report released Tuesday focused on reading ability and found that more than a dozen countries, from Korea to Poland, performed significantly better than the organization's statistical average in that area. The United States did not.

The U.S. scores of 500 in reading and 502 in science, on a 1,000-point scale, were about the organization's average, according to the report. The U.S. math score of 487 was below the average of 496.

Education experts cautioned that the strong marks for Shanghai, as well as those reported for Hong Kong, were not representative of education trends in China as a whole because the testing program did not canvass the entire country.

Still, Andreas Schleicher, who oversees the the testing program, called the results from Shanghai "stunning." He said it has been especially adept at moving talented educators into the most challenging assignments through career and pay incentives.

Susan Fuhrman, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, said several of the Pacific Rim nations that excelled in the testing have strong academic standards and a culture of high expectations, with particular emphasis on math and science. She added that the teaching profession is often more prestigious in such countries.

"We are not drawing from the top group of college graduates for teaching" in the United States, Fuhrman said, "and some other countries are."

Among the other key findings of the study:

-- Girls outperform boys in reading in every participating country. The gender reading gap, among the organization's members, was equivalent to about 39 points on the testing scale, or a year of schooling.

"In the United States, we're quite used to this" gender gap, said Tom Loveless, an education scholar at the Brookings Institution, "but it turns out that it's a worldwide phenomenon."

-- Countries with similar levels of economic prosperity can yield widely varying academic results. Korea, the strongest performer among the group's member nations, has a lower gross domestic product per capita than the organization's average. So does Shanghai.

-- U.S. math results were up since 2006 but not measurably different than scores in 2003, the earliest year in which comparisons were possible. U.S. science scores were up since 2006, a bright spot in the results.

Testing was conducted in the United States from September to November 2009, including 5,233 students from 165 public and private schools, randomly selected.

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