Online Degrees Blog How USA education measures up worldwide

How USA education measures up worldwide

15 May
Group of school children stand together in front of a school bus.

The United States has been struggling to keep up with other countries in terms of educational performance, particularly in mathematics and science. The consequences of this educational gap are far-reaching, impacting both the economy and the prospects of American workers.

The USA “is now the worst-educated workforce in the industrialized world. Because our workers are among the most highly paid in the world, that makes a lot of Americans uncompetitive in the global economy. And uncompetitive against increasingly smart machines. It is a formula for a grim future,” states a 2021 Education Week article.1

However, with the substantial funding allocated through the American Rescue Plan, there is a glimmer of hope for transforming the U.S. school system and reclaiming our position as a global leader in education.1

In this blog post, we delve into the global education landscape and explore the measures being taken to address educational disparities and improve student outcomes in the United States.

The USA education crisis: Years in the making

The United States is grappling with an educational crisis and has been for some time, as indicated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).2

Numerous countries outperform the United States in high school mathematics, revealing a notable achievement gap. Additionally, American millennials rank last in mathematics and problem-solving tests when compared to their counterparts in other countries. This situation poses a substantial challenge to the nation's global economic standing and undermines the future competitiveness of American workers.

These challenges extend beyond mathematics. American students also face significant gaps in other key subjects, including reading comprehension, science, and problem-solving skills. These shortcomings in multiple subjects further compound the nation's educational concerns and hinder its ability to compete globally.

On a hopeful note, these findings can serve as a valuable resource for policymakers and educators, offering insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the education system. By leveraging these insights, the United States can work towards implementing effective strategies and reforms to enhance educational outcomes, ensuring that its students are well-equipped for future challenges and remain globally competitive.

How educational performance is measured: PISA, TIMMS, and NAEP

Through specific rankings and results from reputable assessments such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), and NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress), a comprehensive understanding of the United States' global standing in education can be obtained.

These assessments provide valuable insights into how the United States performs in various subjects and highlight areas that require improvement.

PISA: Critical thinking in math, science, and reasoning

Taken every three years, the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is a global program that assesses the skills and knowledge of approximately 600,000 15-year-old students from various countries.2

The assessment focuses on three key areas: science, reading, and mathematics. Unlike traditional tests that emphasize rote memorization, PISA aims to evaluate students' ability to apply their knowledge and problem-solving skills in real-world scenarios.

The significance of PISA lies in its correlation with economic success. Research suggests that countries with higher PISA rankings tend to fare better in the 21st-century global knowledge economy. Therefore, PISA serves as an essential indicator of how well school systems are preparing students for the challenges of a rapidly evolving world.

Critics of PISA in the United States argue that the country's performance is affected by a higher percentage of disadvantaged children compared to other OECD countries. However, data from the OECD reveals that the United States has a proportion of disadvantaged students that is around the OECD average. On the other hand, the United States has a greater number of students from socio-economically advantaged backgrounds, indicating that American students are generally better off compared to their counterparts in the average OECD country.2

The data provided by PISA assessments provide valuable insights into the preparedness of education systems for the demands of the global knowledge economy. While critics may raise concerns about factors influencing performance, it is the understanding and improvement of educational outcomes that remain paramount for all countries participating in the PISA program.

TIMSS: Providing insights into mathematics and science achievement

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) serves as a valuable source of data on the mathematics and science performance of U.S. students in comparison to their peers worldwide.

Since 1995, TIMSS has been collecting data from students in grades 4 and 8 every four years, offering reliable and up-to-date information. The participation of the United States in each administration of TIMSS has been consistent, enabling comprehensive analysis.3

TIMSS, conducted in the United States by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), is sponsored by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). In addition to assessing mathematics and science, TIMSS incorporates questionnaires that gather insights from students, teachers, and school principals, providing context for learning.

The most recent TIMSS data collection took place in 2019, involving students in grades 4 and 8. The NCES TIMSS 2019 results web page offers a comprehensive report highlighting the U.S. outcomes for this administration.

Past results, including those from TIMSS Advanced—an internationally recognized assessment designed specifically for students in their final year of secondary school, who are enrolled in specialized advanced mathematics and physics programs—are also accessible on the results page, allowing for comparative analysis.

To delve deeper into TIMSS and U.S. participation, the NCES TIMSS website provides additional resources for exploration. International resources, such as the TIMSS International reports, assessment frameworks, methods and procedures, and international data files are available on the TIMSS International site.

The introduction of eTIMSS in TIMSS 2019 marks a transition to computer-based assessments. Roughly half of the participating education systems, including the United States, opted for eTIMSS implementation. To ensure compatibility between computer-based and paper-based data, a bridge study was conducted, establishing a link between eTIMSS countries' 2019 computer-based data, their 2015 paper-based data, and the paper-based TIMSS countries in 2019. This approach enabled achievement results to be reported on the same scale across grades and subjects.4

In addition to international comparisons, trend scores are provided across the seven TIMSS assessment cycles for countries with comparable data from previous assessments. More details on the bridge study can be found in the TIMSS International Methods and Procedures.4

Looking ahead, the eighth assessment cycle of TIMSS, scheduled for 2023, will mark the completion of the transition to eTIMSS. With 28 years of trend data, TIMSS 2023 will also offer valuable insights into the progress and changes in mathematics and science education.4

NAEP: Navigating educational success through the nation’s report card

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a long-running testing effort that measures academic achievement of American students in various subjects.5

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, puts together The Nation's Report Card which serves as a valuable resource and a standardized measure of student achievement. It provides crucial insights into the state of our K-12 education system and offers a glimpse into what our children are learning.

By actively participating in the Nation's Report Card—the largest ongoing assessment of American students' knowledge and skills in different subjects—students, parents, teachers, and principals contribute to the informed decision-making process for enhancing our education system.

This comprehensive evaluation, representative of the nation as a whole, plays a pivotal role in shaping policies and initiatives aimed at improving education in our country. The involvement of students, parents, teachers, and principals in the assessment helps gather valuable data and perspectives, ultimately guiding efforts to enhance educational practices and outcomes nationwide.

The Nation's Report Card empowers stakeholders to make informed decisions and take collective action toward creating a better educational experience for all.

USA education by the numbers: Breaking down the data

How do American students compare to their peers around the world?

Here's a summary of recent data from international math and science assessments that can help us answer that question.

Cross-national assessments show mixed results for U.S. students

In the 2018 PISA results, the United States achieved an average score of 1,485, placing it in the 22nd position among the countries assessed. While the United States' performance was below that of top-performing countries like China, Singapore, and Estonia, it still exceeded the average scores for all the OECD countries, which scored 1,465.2

Notably, in 2018, China emerged as the highest-scoring country with a mean score of 1,736, followed closely by Singapore in the second spot and Estonia in the third spot. It is important to note that China's performance was based on a select group of regions, including Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu, and Zhejiang, representing a small fraction of its total population.2

These recent PISA results have sparked discussions about the state of education in the United States, highlighting the need for improvements in areas such as reading, mathematics, and science. Efforts are underway to analyze the factors influencing the country's performance and to identify areas that require targeted interventions.

Due to the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the scheduled PISA 2021 assessment was postponed and rescheduled to take place in 2022. The decision to delay the assessment was made to ensure the safety and well-being of students, educators, and all participants involved. However, PISA 2022 also did not take place. The next PISA looks to be scheduled for the year 2025.

On a similar assessment, the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), American students in grades four and eight scored somewhat better. In tests from 2015, 10 countries had statistically higher average fourth-grade math scores than the U.S., while seven countries had higher average science scores. In the eighth-grade tests, seven out of 37 countries had statistically higher average math scores than the U.S., and seven had higher science scores.6

In the 2019 TIMSS results, the United States had higher average scores than most participating countries in both math and science at both grade levels. However, there were significant score gaps between the top-performing and bottom-performing students in the United States, especially in 8th-grade math. These score gaps increased compared to previous TIMSS administrations, partly due to lower performance among the bottom performers in 2019.3

Gender differences in performance varied in the United States, with boys outperforming girls in 4th-grade math and science, but no gender differences observed in 8th-grade math or science.3

Over the long term, U.S. average scores in math have increased, while science scores have remained relatively stable. However, there were no significant changes in average scores between 2015 and 2019. Notably, the average science score for 4th graders decreased in 2019 compared to the previous administration.

These findings highlight both areas of strength and areas for improvement in math and science education in the United States. Ongoing attention is needed to address score gaps and sustain progress in student achievement over time.

Math proficiency of US students dips after years of growth

The latest NAEP mathematics assessment was administered between January and March 2022 to representative samples of fourth and eighth-grade students across the nation, including those attending public schools, private schools, Bureau of Indian Education schools, and Department of Defense schools.7

The results revealed significant declines in average scores for the fourth and eighth grades compared to previous assessments. In fourth grade, the average mathematics score decreased by 5 points, marking the lowest score since 2005, although it was still 1 point higher than 2003. Similarly, the average eighth-grade mathematics score decreased by 8 points compared to 2019 and was the lowest observed since 2003.7

These score declines were observed across most states/jurisdictions and participating urban districts in 2022, indicating a widespread trend. The average scores are reported on NAEP mathematics scales ranging from 0 to 500, providing a comprehensive measure of student performance.7

These results provide insights for education stakeholders and policy-makers into students' academic achievement during the COVID-19 pandemic, comparing their performance to pre-pandemic levels in 2019, as well as to previous assessments dating back to 1990.

Public perception of American education

These results likely won’t surprise many people. In a 2015 Pew Research Center report, only 29% of Americans rated their country’s K-12 education in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (known as STEM) as above average or the best in the world.8

Scientists were even more critical: A companion survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science found that just 16% called U.S. K-12 STEM education the best or above average; 46%, in contrast, said K-12 STEM in the U.S. was below average.8

In 2022, according to, an organization that represents the interests of the 74 million Americans under the age of 18, more than seven in 10 voters believe it is crucial for the country to ensure that students are reading at their appropriate grade level.

Additionally, nearly half of the voters express concerns that schools are not adequately preparing students with real-world skills needed for the future workforce.9 This indicates a strong desire for educational institutions to prioritize practical and applicable knowledge.

Voters also emphasize the importance of supporting students' social, emotional, and mental well-being. They express a need for additional counseling and social-emotional learning programs, challenging the perception that such initiatives are merely symbolic. The prevalence of school shootings throughout the year has further amplified concerns, with nearly 8 in 10 voters calling for more robust measures to ensure that public schools remain safe environments free from physical violence, including guns.9

These efforts align with the findings from the PEW report, which highlight the desire for improved reading proficiency, real-world skills, social-emotional support, and enhanced school safety measures. By actively involving communities and considering their input, policymakers can shape educational policies and practices that address these concerns and lead to positive outcomes for students and their families.

Key areas of concern for the US education system

In the realm of education, the United States faces several key areas of concern when compared to its global counterparts. These concerns, as indicated by various sources, shed light on critical challenges that need to be addressed for the betterment of the education system in the country.

One area of concern is the level of student achievement, particularly in subjects such as math and science. Cross-national assessments, such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), reveal that U.S. students often lag behind their peers from other countries. For instance, the 2018 PISA results, as noted, placed the United States in 22nd position for mathematics, signaling the need for improvements in this essential subject area.

Another significant concern is the development of real-world skills among students. Voters in the United States have expressed dissatisfaction with the current education system's ability to prepare students for the future workforce. They believe that schools should focus not only on academic knowledge but also on imparting the practical skills necessary for success in the real world. This highlights the importance of incorporating real-world applications and hands-on learning experiences into the curriculum.

Furthermore, social-emotional learning and mental health support are pressing concerns. The desire for additional counseling and social-emotional support indicates a recognition of the importance of students' overall well-being in their educational journey. It highlights the need for schools to address students' emotional and mental health needs alongside their academic development.

School safety is yet another critical area of concern. The prevalence of school shootings and physical violence has raised alarm among voters, with a vast majority calling for stronger measures to ensure the safety of students and teachers. Public schools need to prioritize creating a safe and secure environment that is free from threats and violence.

Revitalizing US education: Strategies for addressing key concerns

To address these concerns, policymakers are exploring various strategies for improvement. This includes engaging families and communities in decision-making processes, incorporating real-world applications into the curriculum, enhancing social-emotional learning programs, and implementing comprehensive safety measures.

Efforts are underway to address the key concerns in U.S. education and improve student outcomes. Here are some strategies being implemented or suggested to tackle these challenges:

Enhancing curriculum and instruction

To improve student achievement in subjects like math and science, there is a focus on enhancing curriculum and instructional practices. This includes adopting evidence-based teaching methods, incorporating real-world applications into lessons, and providing professional development opportunities for educators to strengthen their subject knowledge and pedagogical skills.

Promoting STEAM education

Emphasizing science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) education helps cultivate critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity among students. Integrating arts and design into STEM subjects encourages innovative thinking and practical application of knowledge.

Broadening career and technical education (CTE)

Recognizing the need for real-world skills, there is a push to expand career and technical education programs. These programs offer students opportunities to gain practical skills and industry certifications that align with workforce demands. Collaboration with employers and industry experts helps ensure relevance and alignment with future job requirements.

Strengthening social-emotional learning (SEL)

Schools are incorporating social-emotional learning programs to support students' emotional well-being and develop their interpersonal skills. This involves teaching self-awareness, empathy, responsible decision-making, and building positive relationships. Implementing comprehensive SEL frameworks equips students with essential life skills to thrive academically and socially.

Increasing mental health support

Recognizing the importance of mental health, schools are prioritizing mental health services and resources for students. This includes counseling services, access to trained professionals, and proactive initiatives to address stress, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. Collaboration with community organizations and mental health providers can enhance the availability and effectiveness of these services.

Improving school safety measures

To ensure safer school environments, comprehensive safety measures are being implemented. This includes enhancing physical security, implementing emergency response protocols, conducting regular safety drills, and promoting awareness and training for students, teachers, and staff. Collaboration among schools, law enforcement agencies, and community stakeholders is crucial to create a secure learning environment.

Engaging families, caregivers, and communities

Involving families, caregivers, and communities in decision-making processes and educational initiatives fosters a sense of ownership and partnership. Schools are implementing strategies such as parent advisory committees, community forums, and virtual town halls to gather feedback, address concerns, and ensure diverse voices are heard in shaping education policies and practices.

Leveraging technology and online learning

The use of educational technology and online learning platforms provides access to a wide range of resources, personalized learning experiences, and opportunities for remote and blended learning. Integrating technology effectively in classrooms enhances engagement, facilitates differentiated instruction, and expands educational opportunities beyond traditional boundaries.

By implementing these strategies, the United States can address the concerns surrounding student achievement, real-world skills development, social-emotional learning, mental health support, and school safety. It requires a collaborative approach involving educators, policymakers, families, community organizations, and stakeholders to ensure a holistic and effective education system that prepares students for success in an ever-evolving world.

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