In Brief

The National Center for Education Statistics' latest data on cross-national differences in math, science and reading literacy among fourth- and eighth-graders and 15-year-olds peg U.S. students close to the bottom in math (see chart). This and other such findings on students' academic achievement can hopefully help psychologists in their work to bolster teacher quality and student learning, says psychologist Theodore A. Lamb, PhD, a co-director of the Center for Research and Evaluation at the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, which is helping to coordinate the public release of the results.

The data came from annual standardized assessments--the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA)--that gauge international education achievement.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Economic Development (OECD)--a Paris-based agency representing the world's 30 most industrialized nations--conducts PISA every three years to assess academic achievement in math, science and reading among 15-year-olds. In 2003, 5,456 U.S. students from 262 schools participated. TIMSS, conducted every four years in about 50 countries, assesses fourth- and eighth-graders' achievement in math and science. TIMSS content is drawn from the curricula of participating countries.

PISA is focused on real-world problem-solving and is not curriculum-based, Lamb says, noting that its design allows researchers to examine learning independent of differences in school curricula.

The data also allow psychologists to spot educational trends and evaluate the efficacy of policy initiatives, such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Lamb says.

For example, psychologists can study ways to improve teachers' professional development and instructional materials--with a view to boosting students' learning, and, consequently, their scores on international testing, Lamb notes.

Among some of the findings from the 2003 PISA and TIMSS data:

  • U.S. 15-year-old students ranked 24th out of 29 nations in math literacy, posting an average math literacy score of 483 compared with the OECD average score of 500. Students from Finland and South Korea achieved the highest math scores of 544 and 542, respectively.

  • Boys outperformed girls in math in most industrialized countries, including the United States, where males scored an average of 486 in math and females scored 480.

  • The gap in achievement between white and black fourth- and eighth-grade U.S. students narrowed between 1995 and 2003 in both math and science. Black fourth-grade students improved their scores from 457 in 1995 to 472 in 2003; black eighth-grade students posted an average score of 419 in 1995 that jumped to 448 in 2003. White students in both grades scored, on average, in the 500s.

  • Half of 15-year-old boys and more than 60 percent of same-age girls report they often worry they will find math classes difficult and will get poor grades.

For a complete list of results, visit the PISA database at and TIMSS at