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U.S. High School Students Lag Foreign Peers in Achievement Scores

Are U.S. Students Choosing the Easy Path to Success?

Much has been written about the low achievement scores of U.S. high-schoolers when compared to those of other countries. The chart below shows how badly U.S. students lag behind their peers in foreign countries. When comparing achievement scores in reading, math, and science, U.S. 15-year-olds rank 24th, 36th, and 28th respectively. This puts them behind students in countries such as Poland, Liechtenstein, and Estonia. I find this intolerable.

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I have previously blogged about how badly U.S. students lag behind Chinese kids and, for that matter, kids in many Asian countries. Having taught college kids for well over 30 years, I can attest to the validity of these results. The Asian students almost always achieve the highest grade-point-averages in their programs. There is no doubt the main reason is they have a stronger work ethic. I’ve observed that most Asian students have it drummed into them at an early age by their parents that hard work and achievement are an integral part of a happy, successful life -- and builds harmony.

Writing in The Balance, Kimberly Amadeo points out that the U.S. is not investing as much in human capital as other developed countries. As a result, its comparative advantage is falling behind. For example, U.S. students' math skills have remained stagnant for decades

The second chart below show the results of a Harris Poll about what careers kids from the U.S., U.K., and China aspire to, which we can call their values. It’s startling that U.S. and U.K. kids want to be known as a vlogger or social media influencer while kids from China want to be astronauts. This means they’re willing to put in the time and effort to learn the most important, and difficult, subject matter – Astrophysics. Again, we can attribute the results to the work ethic of kids in China. Amadeo says that many companies simply outsource their tech jobs overseas so that there are fewer high-paying jobs going to American citizens because they may not be qualified.


In another assessment, The Program for International Student Assessment, tests 15-year-old students around the world and is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2018, when the test was last administered, the U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science. It did worse in math, ranking 30th.

The U.S. scored 478 in math, below the OECD average of 489. That's well below the scores of the top five, all of which were Asian nations: Singapore at 569, Macao at 555, Hong Kong at 551, Taiwan at 531, and Japan at 527. China was not included in this ranking, since only four provinces participated.

In science, the U.S. scored at 502, above the OECD average of 489. The top five highest-scoring countries were Singapore at 551, Macao at 544, Estonia at 530, Japan at 529, and Finland at 522.

When analyzing the U.S. results over the years, it's clear that the scores have been stable over time—while not declining, there aren't any signs of improvement, either. In fact, there's been no detectable change in U.S. students' math scores since 2003 or science scores since 2006.

Despite the low scores dating back decades, some Americans see no problem with the state of U.S. education. In 2008, nearly half of those who participated in an Associated Press poll said that American students’ achievement test scores were the same as or better than those of children in other industrialized nations. However, 90% of them recognized that education helps economic growth.

We need to take notice of the fact that the U.S. ranks near the bottom in a survey of students’ math skills in 30 industrialized countries and lower than their peers in other subjects. We need to insist that schools get back to the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic, and now we must add technology to the mix.

I worry about the emphasis in education, even starting in the middle school, on woke issues such as Critical Race Theory. I'm not against teaching these ideas but it must be put in context with respect to American history. It shouldn't be used to indoctrinate American students to a certain school of thought but to stimulate their brains and enhance education in critical thinking skills. We should teach it in earnest to millennials and in college where comparative history is taught. Moreover, we shouldn't take time away from the 3Rs and technology because we need to reclaim our competitive advantage in the world.

Finally, the IMD World Competitiveness Center reports that the U.S. is ranked 10th in its 2020 Competitiveness Report. After ranking first in 2018, the U.S. fell to the third spot in 2019. The seven-point tumble to 10th place in 2020 represents the lowest the U.S. has ever been in the annual ranking system by far.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on March 22, 2022. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his media activities at: Follow him on Facebook at: and on Twitter at: