Math scores fell globally, but the United States still lags behind other countries

The math performance of American teenagers has declined sharply since 2018, with scores lower than 20 years ago, and American students continue to lag behind their global competitors, according to results of a key international exam released Tuesday.

In the first comparable global results since the coronavirus pandemic, 15-year-olds in the United States scored lower than those in similar industrialized democracies such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, and far behind students in countries with higher performance, like Singapore. South Korea and Estonia continue to have low math performance that pre-pandemic.

Dismal results in mathematics were offset by better performance in reading and science, where the United States scored above the international average.

About 66 percent of American students scored at least basic level in mathematics, compared with about 80 percent in reading and science, according to the test, the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.

The exam was last administered in 2018 and measures the performance of 15-year-olds around the world, with an emphasis on real-world skills. It is normally administered every three years, but was delayed a year during the pandemic. Nearly 700,000 teenagers around the world took the exam in 2022.

The results are the latest indicator of an American education system that struggles to prepare all students from an early age, with mastery of mathematics dripping the longest Students remain in the system. Last year’s national test results also reported larger declines in math compared to reading, a subject that can be more influenced by what happens at home and was less affected by school closures.

Globally, students lost the equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning in mathematics, which was the main focus of the 2022 test. And only a few countries (Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Australia) kept high levels of math achievement during the pandemic.

Countries that kept schools closed longer generally experienced larger declines.

But the results were mixed. Even with its declines in math, the United States lost less ground than some European countries that prioritized opening schools more quickly. And the United States remained stable in reading and science.

The United States even rose in the world rankings, largely due to declines by other nations.

President Biden’s Education Secretary, Miguel A. Cardona, cautiously celebrated the United States’ improvement in global rankings, which he attributed in part to a $122 billion federal aid package for schools that he said, “kept the United States in the game.”

Still, the United States, the world’s largest economy, is far from being a global leader in education, even as it spends more on education per student than many other countries.

In mathematics, the United States ranked 28th among 37 participating countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, made up mostly of industrialized democracies that account for most of world trade.

“I don’t think it can go much lower,” said Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the OECD, which oversees the exam. “The United States should not be compared” to less advanced economies, he said.

Even relatively well-off American students did not score as high in math as the average-performing student in prominent places like Japan, South Korea, and Hong Kong.

“It’s not just about poor kids from poor neighborhoods,” Schleicher said. Half of 15-year-olds in Hong Kong performed as well or better than the richest 10 percent of American students, he said.

Only 7 percent of American students scored at the highest levels in mathematics, compared with 23 percent in Japan and South Korea, and 41 percent in Singapore, the top-performing country.

“From a competition standpoint, this is not where you want to be,” said Tracey Burns, head of research and evaluation at the National Center on Education and Economics, which studies high-performing school systems. She noted that there was also a gender divide in math: 10 percent of American boys scored at the highest level, compared to 5 percent of girls.

Perhaps equally worrying: One in three American students scored below the basic level of proficiency in mathematics, indicating that they are struggling with skills they may need in the real world, such as using proportions to solve problems.

In a surprising result, the PISA test did not find a growing gap in math and reading between the highest and lowest performing students in the United States during the pandemic, unlike other test results among younger students. (He found a growing gap in the science.)

But few low-income students are rising to the top, a worrying trend across countries.

In the United States, approximately one in 10 students from disadvantaged backgrounds scored in the top quartile in mathematics.

Many disadvantaged students don’t have access to rigorous math instruction, starting at an early age, said Shalinee Sharma, CEO of Zearn, a math platform widely used by elementary and middle school students.

Unlike some countries that embrace math as a learned skill, the United States tends to treat it as a talent, designating only certain students as “math kids,” he said. That philosophy can especially harm low-income students.

“When they have access to high-quality math learning,” he said, “they excel.”

In other measures, the United States stood out for having more children living with food insecurity (13 percent, compared to an average of 8 percent in other OECD countries), more students feeling lonely at school (22 percent, versus 16 percent) and more students not feeling safe at school (13 percent, versus 10 percent).