Dec. 12, 2012 -- American students scored above average on international math and reading tests, but they still lag behind students from Asian countries, according to two studies of 2011 scores released this week.
The studies compared U.S. fourth and eighth graders to students at the same schooling levels from around the world. Even though the reading test is conducted every five years, by evaluating students at the same grade levels, educators are more accurately able to compare these skills.
While the U.S. ranking may sound favorable, it factors in test results from countries with much fewer resources, and some with less-than-democratic political systems. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates participated in the studies, as did Morocco, Colombia, Azerbaijan and Honduras.
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The numbers for U.S. Hispanic students are especially troubling. While fourth-grade Latinos scored above the international average for most measures, eighth-grade Latinos did not. Hispanic students slipped while their white and Asian peers maintained their higher-than-average ranking. Here's what that looks like.
According to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, American students scored better than average in both the fourth and eighth grades in math, and they did better overall than in 2007, the last time the test was administered.
Of the 57 education systems that participated at the fourth grade level, the average U.S. math score was among the top 15. U.S. Hispanic fourth graders, along with their white and Asian peers, scored higher than the international average, while black students scored lower. However, Hispanic and black students both scored lower than the U.S. national average.
The picture is bleaker for Hispanic eighth graders. They, along with their black peers, fell below both the international and national averages.
For eighth graders, the U.S. average math score was just above average, and only 7 percent attained an advanced level in math.
The U.S. average score in science was higher than the international average for both fourth and eighth graders.
At the fourth-grade level, U.S. white, Asian and Hispanic students all scored higher than the international average, while blacks scored lower. Hispanic fourth graders scored lower than the national average however.
As with math, U.S. Latino and black eighth graders fell below the international average as well as the national average. White and Asian students scored higher on both.
Some states requested that they be evaluated against the other education systems participating in the test, and several did quite well. Massachusetts students, for example, scored well in science, with only Singapore turning in a noticeably higher average score.
According to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, U.S. students scored higher than average in reading.
Five education systems out of a total sample of 53 scored higher than U.S. fourth graders, while seven were not noticeably different. Hong Kong, the state of Florida, Russia, Finland and Singapore scored higher.
And while the U.S. overall standing in reading has improved since 2006, the picture is still less rosy for Hispanic kids. Latino fourth graders scored higher than the international average but lower than the U.S. average.
Latinos on average earn less than their white peers, and, predictably, scores were lower for schools with higher numbers of students who received free or reduced-cost lunches. Such students are more likely to have parents who are less educated and thus less able to help with schoolwork. Those holding low-paying jobs are also more likely to have less flexible work schedules, meaning children growing up in poverty are less able to participate in beneficial extracurricular activities because of both prohibitive costs and because their parents or guardians may not be able to devote time transporting them to and from such activities. Hispanic children are also less likely than their peers to attend preschool and some lack the skills that their Asian and white peers, who are more likely to attend preschool, already have upon entering Kindergarten, placing them at an immediate disadvantage.
The High Scorers
Hong Kong, Russia, Finland, Singapore and Northern Ireland all scored high in terms of reading. Asian countries dominated math and science, with Singapore, Korea, Chinese Taipei, Hong Kong and Japan turning in the highest scores.
Florida is particularly notable. The state asked that students' reading scores be compared to other international systems, and no country scored noticeably higher on the fourth grade-level reading skills test. In the 1990s, Florida ranked near the bottom of a ranking of U.S. states.
And, while Hispanic students in the state performed lower than their white and Asian peers in the state, they performed higher than the U.S. average.
Former Florida governor and founder of the education advocacy group Foundation for Excellence in Education Jeb Bush released a statement praising the state.
"Sunshine state students are once again busting all the myths and proving that all kids can and will learn when education is organized around their achievement," he said.
As governor, Bush instituted a program that mandated more academic studying focused on reading in kindergarten and held back under-performing students.