American achievement in international perspective

The latest results from the Programme for
International Student Assessment (PISA) garnered all the usual headlines about
America’s lackluster performance and the rise of competitor nations. And to be
sure, the findings—that America’s fifteen-year-olds perform in the middle of
the pack in both reading and math—are disconcerting for a nation that considers
itself an international leader and prides itself on home-grown innovation,
intellect, and opportunity.

But the headlines—and national averages—don’t tell the whole
story. Particularly among other industrialized and advanced nations, the United
States still has the upper hand in one critical measure: size. With over 300
million people, the U.S. ranks as the third most populous country in the world,
behind China and India. Sure, Finland—a country of 5 million people, barely more
than live in Los Angeles—might produce more high-achieving students per capita than any other nation on
earth. But is it reasonable to worry that high-achieving Finns will flood the
international job market to the exclusion of high-achieving Americans? In terms
of human-capital output, where does America stand among the world’s advanced

Fordham’s new report,
American Achievement in International
, offers some insight. The report looks at international
achievement on the 2009 PISA among member countries of the Organisation for
Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), analyzing the data in three ways:
First, it ranks proficiency rates to find the proportions of each country that are high- or low-achieving. Then,
it ranks countries by raw numbers of
high- and low-achievers. Finally, it examines how America’s main racial groups
stack up.

The findings? As expected, proportionally, the United States inspires minimal confidence: Per capita, we produce fewer high
achievers and more low achievers than many countries typically praised for
their education systems.

But in comparing raw numbers
the data shine more brightly on the United States. Despite higher proportions of strong
performance, other OECD countries are no match for the sheer volume of U.S. high
achievers. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than
France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined.
In reading, we produce more high achievers than Japan and Korea combined. (See Figure 3.)

Figure 3: Number of High-Achievers by Country

These numbers are key to understanding why an
average-performing country like the United States can still dominate
international job placements, admissions to prestigious universities, and scientific

Of course, the same is true at the other end of the
spectrum. In raw numbers, the United States
produces far more low-achieving students than any other OECD nation, including
even two developing economies, Mexico and Turkey. In both reading and math, the
U.S. produces more low achievers than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the
United Kingdom combined.

When the data are sorted by race, further noteworthy facts
emerge. Proportionally, Asian
American students boast the largest share of top readers in the OECD, and white
Americans are bested only by Finns and New Zealanders. Compare that to black
American students, of whom approximately 50 percent are low-achieving in math—a
higher proportion than is found in any OECD country save Chile and Mexico. In
reading, only Mexico does worse.

In raw numbers,
however, high-achieving black American readers outnumber high-achieving readers
in each of twenty-three OECD countries, including Belgium, Finland, and New
Zealand. In both reading and math, the United States produces a larger
population of high-achieving Hispanic students than high-achieving Asian students.
To further complicate the debate, in both reading and math, the U.S. produces
about the same number of low-achieving white students as low-achieving black

What to make of these analyses? For one, it’s obvious that
America’s size alone makes it the major player at both ends of the achievement
spectrum: Our top students outnumber the high achievers of other advanced
nations by a hefty margin—but so do our worst performers outnumber their low-performing

The large U.S. output of high-achieving
students also helps ensure that Americans maintain a solid foothold in top
universities and top jobs internationally. But our large number of low-achieving students is a critical
issue: It’s hard to imagine the U.S. maintaining its economic strength—or
social cohesion—while miseducating such a large number of its youth.

Finally, the
mile-wide chasm that is our own domestic achievement gap cannot be denied.
America’s white and Asian students perform among the world’s best; our black
and Hispanic students are battling it out with the OECD’s worst. Still, these
analyses identify an interesting wrinkle, and perhaps a ray of hope: In raw
numbers, at least, our high-achieving Hispanic and black American students
outnumber the high achievers of several other countries. At the least, this
indicates that those many individuals will have seats at the international
table—on prestigious college campuses, in boardrooms, and in laboratories. It’s
a start.

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.