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International Assessment of Science Education

December 13, 2013

There are some impressive autodidacts in many fields, and the early history of computing is replete with many examples of these. However, most people learn by going to school, some for longer periods than others; either because they need to, or because they want to. I was fortunate to have been taught by some capable scientist-professors, as have many of my readers.

Students are kept on their toes by assessment exams. I would not have been inspired to learn many of the things I did were it not for the pressure of an impeding test. In those cases, my performance was tested against that of my peers.

There are assessment tests in which the performance of students in a country are compared against that of students in other countries. One of these assessment tests is the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The 2012 results of that assessment have just been released.[1-5]

Albert Einstein's high school diploma and grade report.

Everyone takes tests.

A portion of Albert Einstein's high school diploma and grade report, October 3, 1896.

Einstein had the highest grades in mathematics, physics, and history.

(Photo by Luis Gameiro, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Worldwide, this triennial test was taken by about half a million students, aged 15 years and 3 months to 16 years and 2 months, randomly selected. In the United States, 6,000 students from 161 random schools took the test. Worldwide, there are about 28 million 15-year-old schoolchildren in the sixty-five participating countries/city-states.[1]

Unlike the typical, multiple-choice, fact-based assessment tests administered to US students annually by their own schools, the questions on the PISA test are more like real-world problems. The path to the answer on the mathematics portion of the test is not a memorized formula; rather, it's a real world problem, like what automobile is the best buy based on performance vs price.[4]

As a first disappointment, the 2012 US scores, which encompass the areas of reading, mathematics and science, were lower than the last test, administered in 2009.[1] As can be seen in the figure, the United States ranked 29th in science for 2012. The US score was just slightly lower than the average of all tested countries.[1]

Figure caption

The United States ranked 29th in science scores in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment.

This score was below average for countries whose students took the assessment test.

(Graph rendered using LibreOffice from data in ref. 1.[1]

The science score for US students was 497, which was about the same as the average of 501 for OECD countries. US students ranked higher in science than students from 21 other countries, lower than 29 others, and not much different from 14 others.[2] The mathematics ranking was somewhat better, with the US scoring better than 29 other countries, lower than 26 others, and about the same as 9 others.[2]

Verifying a common stereotype, Asian countries and city-states, such as Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea, Macau and Japan, were found to be superior to the rest of the world. Shanghai students scored so well in mathematics that they had knowledge nearly equivalent to three years of schooling above that of most OECD countries.[3]

BBC News thinks the source of the Asian hegemony is the attitude of Asian students. While North Americans shun difficult study areas, and Europeans think they are disadvantaged because of social class, Asians take on responsibility for their own success, rather than blaming "the system."[7] School in Asian countries is more about making the grade, rather than a "sorting mechanism" to select the better students from the rest.[7]

In science, boys and girls performed similarly, but the usual sexual dichotomy held true for mathematics. In mathematics, boys scored higher than girls in 37 of the 65 countries, whereas girls were better than boys in just five. Those five were Jordan, Qatar, Thailand, Malaysia and Iceland. Overall, the gender gap is not that large, being at most half a school year in just six countries.[3]

Money makes the world go 'round, and the purpose of schooling is a person's livelihood and the economic status of his country as well. Not surprisingly, there's a correlation between a country's per capita gross domestic product (GDP) and performance on the PISA test. In fact, 21% of the score can be predicted by GDP, so countries whose citizens have higher income are at an advantage.[3,5] Looking at this in more detail, fifteen percent of the achievement gap for US students can be attributed to their poverty.[4]

The US has been throwing a lot of money at its "education problem" for many years, but to what result? The US spends more money per student than fifty-nine of the other countries. Only Austria, Luxembourg, Norway and Switzerland spend more. However, the US rankings was close to that of Slovakia, which spends 46% as much per student.[2]

US students spend as much, or more, time in school as high PISA performers,[5] so it appears that what's really important is what happens after school. Is anybody doing their homework? In my experience, everyone is doing sports and other activities after school hours instead of homework.

The science policy of the US government is clearly out of step with US public opinion. A recent survey by Research!America shows that 70% of surveyed Americans believe that basic scientific research is worthwhile and should be supported by the government. When confronted with the fact that the US government spends only about $100 per American per year on medical research on all diseases and disabilities, about half of those surveyed said that this isn't enough.[8]


  1. PISA 2012 Results, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
  2. Program for International Student Assessment, National Center for Education Statistics.
  3. Ami Sedghi, George Arnett and Mona Chalabi, "Pisa 2012 results: which country does best at reading, maths and science?" The Guardian (UK), December 3, 2013.
  4. Dana Goldstein, "The PISA Puzzle," Slate, December 3, 2013.
  5. Peter Coy, "Quick, Take This Test About the Significance of Those Bad U.S. Test Scores," Business Week, December 3, 2013.
  6. Kathy Tuck and Tim Walker, "Beyond PISA: How the U.S. Ranks Internationally on Five Key Education Issues," NEA Today, June 12, 2013.
  7. Sean Coughlan, "China: The world's cleverest country?," BBC News, May 8, 2012.
  8. Majority of Americans Believe Another Government Shutdown Likely in Coming Months; Last One Harmful to Medical Research, New National Poll Reveals Many Respondents Predict China will Surpass U.S. in Science and Innovation by 2020, Research America Press Release, December 3, 2013.

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