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US students halt academic 'free-fall,' but still lag in global testing

Korean and Finnish students scored highest in the latest round of PISA tests aimed at assessing reading, math, and science literacy.

By Staff Writer / December 7, 2010

The 2009 OECD education report, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) study, is unveiled at a news conference in Tuesday in Vienna.

Peter Bader/Reuters

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American students made modest gains in science and math, but still lag significantly behind their counterparts around the world.

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The latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) released Tuesday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show Asian students – particularly those from China, who participated in the exam for the first time in 2009 – at the top of the pack, with the United States generally in the middle or, in math, toward the bottom.

“We are in the middle of the pack; that’s not where we want to be,” said Stuart Kerachsky, deputy commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, in a call with reporters. “That’s not the goal, but all I see in these numbers is things maybe inching in the right direction.”

The test is given to 15-year-old students in dozens of countries around the world every three years, and aims to assess their reading, math, and science literacy as they prepare to enter college or the workforce. It has long been used in the US to raise alarm bells about American students falling behind in a global world.

And indeed, the most striking result from the 2009 PISA may be the top performance of Chinese students, who participated in the exam for the first time with a pilot program that tested students in several cities.

Mr. Kerachsky and others cautioned not to read too much into the comparisons, since they are from cities – those which draw many of China’s top students – and are hardly representative of all of China. But the results from Shanghai, in particular, which came out No. 1 in all three subject areas, were remarkably high.

In math, for instance, Shanghai students scored an average of 600 (on a scale with a 500-point average). Students in Korea, the top OECD country, scored a 546, and in the United States, they scored 487.

That score puts them in 25th place among the 34 OECD countries, though the score is statistically lower than just 17 of those countries, and indistinguishable from 11 others.

American students scored below the OECD average of 496. The countries outperforming the US include Finland – perennially a top-shower on PISA, along with Korea – Belgium, Estonia, Iceland, France, and the Slovak Republic, among others. US students scored higher than those in just five OECD countries: Greece, Israel, Turkey, Chile, and Mexico.

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