PISA Results Give Insight into Performance of U.S. High School Students

Increased globalization of the economy has led educators and political leaders to recognize the need to transform education in order to prepare students to succeed in the global economy.  For high schools, this means that for students to graduate ready for college and careers, they must be able to perform well not only nationally, but also among their international peers.

On Tuesday, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released results from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), an assessment given every three years to students in countries around the world.  According to OECD, “PISA tests students on their ability to adapt the knowledge they acquire at school to real-life situations as opposed to how they master a specific curriculum.”[1]  Students are tested in three areas: reading literacy, mathematics literacy, and science literacy. 

PISA is unique among other international assessments because it allows a comparison between U.S. high school-age students with students of the same age in other countries, in contrast to PIRLS and TIMSS, which provide information about elementary and middle school students.  PISA is administered to 15-year-olds, regardless of their grade level in any country.  In 2009, 60 countries and 5 other education systems participated in PISA. 

The National Center for Education Statistics released a report “Highlights from PISA 2009: Performance of U.S. 15 Year-old Students in Reading, Mathematics, and Science Literacy in an International Context,” which analyzes U.S. PISA results in the context of international results.  Here are some highlights from their report:

  • U.S. students had an average score of 500 on the combined reading literacy scale, which is not measurably different from the OECD average score of 493.[2]
  • U.S. students scored an average score of 487 on the mathematics literacy scale, which was lower than the OECD average score of 496.  The U.S. average in mathematics literacy showed an increase from the 2006 U.S. scores, but is not measurably different from 2003.
  • U.S. students had an average score of 502 on the science literacy scale, which is not measurably different from the OECD average of 501.  The U.S. average in science literacy was higher than in 2006.

Learn more about PISA results from NCES’ PISA 2009 Results, or search through the results yourself using NCES’ International Data Explorer.

Note: This blog post was originally authored under the auspices of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research (AIR). The National High School Center’s blog, High School Matters, which ran until March 2013, provided an objective perspective on the latest research, issues, and events that affected high school improvement. The CCRS Center plans to continue relevant work originally developed under the National High School Center grant. National High School Center blog posts that pertain to CCRS Center issues are included on this website as a resource to our stakeholders.


[2] The OECD average refers to the average score of OECD’s member countries.  Although 60 countries and 5 education systems participated in PISA, only the 34 member countries are included in the OECD average.

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