Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: America's High Schools Volume 19 Number 1 Spring 2009

How Do American Students Measure Up? Making Sense of International Comparisons
Daniel Koretz


In response to frequent news media reports about how poorly American students fare compared with their peers abroad, Daniel Koretz takes a close look at what these comparisons say, and do not say, about the achievement of U.S. high school students. He stresses that the comparisons do not provide what many observers of education would like: unambiguous information about the effectiveness of American high schools compared with those in other nations.

Koretz begins by describing the two principal international student comparisons—the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Both assessments, he stresses, reflect the performance of students several years before they complete high school. PISA, which targets fifteen-year-old students, measures students' abilities to apply what they have learned in school to real-world problems. By contrast, TIMSS tests fourth and eighth graders. Unlike PISA, TIMSS follows the school curriculum closely.

Because the findings of the two tests are sometimes inconsistent, Koretz stresses the importance of considering data from both sources. He cautions against comparing U.S. students with an "international average," which varies widely from survey to survey depending on which countries participate, and recommends instead comparing them with students in other nations that are similar to the United States or that are particularly high-achieving.

Many observers, says Koretz, speculate that the lackluster average performance of American students in international comparisons arises because many, especially minority and low-income U.S. students, attend low-performing schools. But both TIMSS and PISA, he says, show that the performance of American students on the exams is not much more variable than that of students in countries that are socially more homogeneous or that have more equitable educational systems.

Koretz emphasizes that the international comparisons provide valuable information and are a useful source of hypotheses about American secondary schooling to be tested by researchers. Studies designed to explain differences between U.S. students and those in very similar countries, he says, might provide especially useful suggestions for changes in policy and practice.