US and International Comparisons

The United States has led the world in educational attainment since the mid-nineteenth century, first with universal compulsory elementary education, then with secondary education and finally with the finest university system in the world. Somewhere in the latter part of the twentieth century, it began to lose its distinction as a world leader in education. It can no longer claim to be an undisputed leader in any of these levels of education, largely because other nations have continued to advance in the indicators of educational attainment while the U.S. has not.

High school graduation rates continued to rise until the 1970s when they plateaued at about 75%, while rates in other nations on average continued to increase and many to pass the United States.  It can be argued that U.S. students do not need more education than they currently receive. Most students receive an adequate education to get a job, earn a livelihood and live productively in society. More of the same education will not necessarily make them better equipped for life. However, as education attainment has slowed, economic inequality has soared (Goldin & Katz, 2008).

As the world shrinks and becomes much more interconnected, it is only natural that nations would compare their educational programs and successes with one another. Learning from others is and excellent way to discover new ways of improving. If someone else has created an effective approach, others can learn from it. The most talked about comparisons of educational attainment come in the form of international assessments. One thing that is not talked about is how much these tests predict future success for both the individual and the society. The predictability, reliability and validity of these international assessments, like standardized test used to measure student and teacher growth, are much more limited than the public supposes, yet we take them as accurate and trustworthy indicators of learning, and by extension, progress and success.

Putting those major concerns aside for the present, let’s look at how the United States compares to other nations, to see what we might learn. Scores on international tests for the U.S. are in the average range for all nations that participate. The scores for the United State were up slightly in the latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA); however, what made the news was how poorly U.S. students performed compared to other nations. The common perception conveyed in the media is that the United States was once the world’s leader in these international comparisons and has now fallen behind. This is not true. The first international assessment in 1964 ranked the U.S. as second to last out of 12 nations. There has been a slight but general trend of improvement in U.S. scores on these tests since 1964 (Loveless, 2011, p. 9).


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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