From an article by Michael J. Barrett in The Atlantic (November):
In the 1960s the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) began to tackle the thorny problem of assessing educational quality across the gulfs of nationality, language and culture. The undertaking, enormous in its complexity, produced the first installments of a multinational data base on how the world's children are doing in mastering the common languages of the emerging world economy: mathematics and sciences.
When the IEA conducted its most recent mathematics assessment, in 1981-1982, the results were disheartening for Americans. In an eighth-grade match-up, among 20 school systems surveyed, the American students ranked 10th in arithmetic, 12th in algebra and 16th in geometry. Japan, our principal economic competitor, finished first in all three of these categories. In an intimation of the economic times that might lie ahead, Hungarian students finished ahead of Americans in all three categories. Even Thailand, until recently considered a Third World country rather than a member of the thriving Pacific rim, saw its students finish ahead of the Americans in geometry.
These international comparisons have attracted their share of critics. For example, one point commonly made is that secondary education in the United States is universal -- that the system is open to all children, with 1988 figures showing that 71 percent of those who begin high school go on to graduate -- while systems elsewhere are closed or elite, with a consequent creaming effect that inflates test scores.