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East Asian countries continued their dominance in international test results released Tuesday. The United States scored better than the majority of countries in all subjects, but failed to crack the top 10 in most subjects. Singapore was at or near the top of the pack in all the tests, while Finland slipped slightly from its performance on a different group of assessments given in 2010.

international testing
Students in Singapore give out scrapbooks to teachers on their national Teachers’ Day. The country was one of the highest performing in every subject in international assessment results released Tuesday. (Photo by Steel Wool)

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) were given to hundreds of thousands of fourth and eighth graders to assess their math and science content knowledge and literacy skills. Fifty-two countries took part in at least one part of TIMSS, which is given every four years and 49 did so for PIRLS, which is given every five years.

The U.S ranked sixth in reading among fourth graders, a significant gain over 14th in 2006. Math scores were less impressive, with the U.S. only in the top 15 among fourth graders and among the top 24 in eighth grade. The U.S. made the top 10 in fourth-grade science, but was only among the top 23 in eighth grade.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan described the results as “encouraging news about our students’ progress and some sobering cautionary notes.”

“Learning gains in fourth grade are not being sustained in eight grade – where mathematics and science achievement failed to measurably improve,” he said in a statement. “A number of nations are out-educating us today in STEM disciplines – and if we as a nation don’t turn around, those nations will soon be out-competing us in a knowledge-based, global economy.”

Jim Hull, a senior policy analyst at the National School Boards Association’s Center for Public Education, was less alarmist. “We’ve still made some of the greater gains in the world since 1999,” he said. “It’s something to keep an eye on.”

In math, Singapore, Korea, Hong Kong, Chinese Taipei and Japan were the top performers at both grade levels. In science, Singapore, Japan, Korea and Chinese Taipei again made the cut across the board, joined by Finland. Russia was also a top performer in fourth grade.

East Asian countries also continued to perform well in math. In fourth grade, for instance, 70 percent of students in the five top performing countries reached the high or advanced benchmark in math. The next best showing came from Northern Ireland with 59 percent of students. These gaps grew in the eighth grade, where the report concluded “clearly the East Asian countries … are pulling away from the rest of the world by a considerable margin.”

The overall U.S. figures tell only part of the story. Nine states included in the national score were also measured as independent education systems. In many cases, the states’ results were not significantly different than that of the whole country, but a few were comparable with the high-ranking countries.

Massachusetts ranked second to Singapore in eighth-grade science and tied for fifth in math. Minnesota also ranked near the top in these subjects. And Florida placed fifth in fourth-grade reading.

“There is a great range in the performance of students in various states,” Hull said. “The U.S. can … perform among the best countries in the world.”

When the data is desegregated by race, Asian-American students perform nearly as well as their counterparts in Asian countries, Hull said. But black students “perform similar to the lowest ranking countries in the world,” Hull said. “That’s a huge, huge gap.”

Finland, which has received international attention and accolades for years as a top performer in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), was edged out of many of the top spots on TIMSS. It still ranked third in fourth-grade science and reading, however, and was in the top 10 in all tests.

Martin said that the difference may be attributed to the form of the tests. While PISA has a more general approach, TIMSS measures student achievement against an agreed upon set of specific skills countries are trying to teach their students.

Gary Beach, author of the upcoming book The U.S. Technology Skills Gap, questioned whether such tests are still relevant. “From my conversations with business executives, they’re not so much interested in hiring brainiacs,” he said, adding that they are more concerned with intangible skills like communication and collaboration. “The importance of testing that is more important than testing basic math and science.”

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