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Report: U.S. high schoolers' rank falls worldwide

Leaders at the New York State School Boards

Leaders at the New York State School Boards Association calculate that 84 percent of districts in Nassau and Suffolk counties would have less aid in 2014-15 as compared with the figures six years ago. Credit: Heather Walsh

American high school students have slipped in worldwide rankings of math, science and reading achievement, according to results of international testing released Tuesday by federal education officials.

In math, for example, 35 nations -- including such high achievers as Japan, Canada and Germany -- outpaced the United States in testing conducted last year among representative samples of 15-year-olds. Twenty-nine countries scored lower than the United States.

Ireland, Slovenia, Portugal, Spain and Italy all surpassed the United States in the latest average math scores. Those nations' scores were lower than that of the United States in 2009, the last round of testing. Vietnam, a first-time participant in the tests, also had a higher average than the United States.

Student scores among the world's highest were recorded in three cities in the People's Republic of China -- Shanghai, Hong Kong and Macau. Each of the cities is among the country's most affluent; the average for the nation as a whole was not given.

Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea also ranked near the top.

The test rankings were from the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA, organized by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That intergovernmental organization is made up of 34 mostly industrialized member nations, including the United States.

At a Washington news conference, international and national officials cited the results as evidence that the United States must redouble its efforts to boost academic achievement, pointing to adoption by most states of the Common Core standards. They also spoke of the need to strengthen teacher recruitment and provide more preschool slots for young children.

"We're running in place as other high-performing countries lap us," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

On Long Island, school officials generally offered a more upbeat view of student performance. But a growing number of those officials also expressed an interest in comparing their students' scores to results overseas, as a means of verifying achievement.

Jack Bierwirth, superintendent in the Herricks district, said that about 85 students at his high school took a PISA test in November, and he expects another six to nine Island districts to join the effort in coming months.

"For us to benchmark against the best, we need to use the same assessment," said Tom Rogers, chief of the regional Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services, who also has encouraged local PISA testing.

Groups pushing for higher educational standards in the United States voiced concern that the country is not producing as many students who display the highest levels of analytical skills on PISA assessments as other nations.

"They are the skills most in demand in today's global economy. Unfortunately, they are also the skills that far too many U.S. students lack," said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Alliance officials pointed out that 12 percent of American 15-year-olds scored at the highest levels in at least one academic subject in the latest PISA tests, compared with 21.9 percent of Canadian students.

Other analysts said such results reflect on suburban school systems as well as lower-scoring urban schools. Those authorities cited PISA scores specifically as evidence that suburban schools may not be doing as well as they think.

"What we see when we look at suburban communities is a sort of complacency," said Eric Hanushek, an economist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

Hanushek recently co-authored a book, "Endangering Prosperity," which concludes the United States is in danger of losing its economic edge unless it raises academic achievement.

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