U.S. Education Rankings Are Falling Behind the Rest of the World

How It Hurts the Economy and You

chinese students
Students are slipping behind Chinese students in global test scores.. Photo: Photo: David Butow / Kontributor

The United States is not investing as much in human capital as other developed countries are. As a result, its comparative advantage is falling behind. For example, U.S. students' math skills have remained stagnant for decades. This means the country is falling behind many others, such as Japan, Poland, and Ireland, which have greatly improved. In fact, U.S. test scores are now below the global average. 

Comparing Test Scores

The Program for International Student Assessment tests 15-year-old students around the world and is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In 2018, when the test was last administered, the U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science. It did much worse in math, ranking 30th. 

The U.S. scored 478 in math, below the OECD average of 489. That's well below the scores of the top five, all of which were in Asia: Singapore at 569, Macao at 555, Hong Kong at 551, Taiwan at 531, and Japan at 527. China was not included in this ranking, since only four provinces participated.

In science, the United States scored at 502, above the OECD average of 489. The top five highest-scorers were Singapore at 551, Macao at 544, Estonia at 530, Japan at 529, and Finland at 522.

When analyzing the U.S.'s results over the years, it's clear that the scores have been stable over time. While not declining, there aren't any signs of improvement, either. In fact, there's been no detectable change in U.S. students' math scores since 2003 or science scores since 2006.

Economic Impact of Education

These low scores mean that U.S. students may not be as prepared to take high-paying computer and engineering jobs, which often go to foreign workers. While Silicon Valley is America's high-tech innovation center, one reason for its success is the cultural diversity of its foreign-born software engineers.

Many companies simply outsource their tech jobs overseas. The result, however, is the same: There are fewer high-paying jobs going to American citizens, because they may not be qualified.

An economist from the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, Eric A. Hanushek, estimated that the U.S. economy would grow 4.5% in the next 20 years if our students’ math and science skills were as strong as the rest of the world's. However, this statement would likely come as a shock to many Americans who believe that our students' skills are already among the best in the world.

Perception vs. Reality

Despite the low scores dating back decades, some Americans see no problem with the state of U.S. education. In 2008, nearly half of those who participated in an Associated Press poll said that American students’ achievement test scores were the same as or better than those of children in other industrialized nations. However, 90% of them recognized that education helps economic growth.

The truth is that the U.S. ranks near the bottom in a survey of students’ math skills in 30 industrialized countries. Instead of knowing and confronting the facts, many Americans are in denial. In fact, the same survey showed that while one-third believed their schools were excellent, only one-sixth believed the same of any other schools. The states that are poorest have lower education scores. This cycle creates structural inequality.

Impact on U.S. Competitiveness

The IMD World Competitiveness Center reports that the U.S. is ranked 10th in its 2020 Competitiveness Report. After ranking first in 2018, the U.S. fell to the third spot in 2019. The seven-point tumble to 10th place in 2020 represents the lowest the U.S. has ever been in the annual ranking system by far.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much does the U.S. spend on education?

The most recent numbers for K-12 spending reveal that the U.S. spends $14,891 per public school student per year, which totals $762 billion.

Which state ranks first for education in the U.S.?

Several publications provide state rankings for K-12 education, but they use different methods to come to their conclusions. The National Center for Education Statistics does not rank the states, but Education Week assigns each state a grade, from A to F, based on several factors. No state has achieved an A, and only two states have achieved a B: Massachusetts and New Jersey.

How does the U.S. education system rank for reading?

The U.S. performs above average in reading, with an OECD average score of 505, which is an increase of 4% between 2009 and 2018.

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  1. Economic Policy Institute. "What Do International Tests Really Show About U.S. Student Performance?"

  2. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "OECD Programme for International Student Assessment."

  3. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "2018 PISA Results."

  4. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "PISA Country Note – United States."

  5. Eric A. Hanushek at Stanford University. "The Economic Value of Education and Cognitive Skills."

  6. IMD World Competitiveness Center. "IMD World Competitiveness Ranking 2020 Factors Ranking."

  7. National Center for Education Statistics. "Expenditures."

  8. Education Week. "State Grades on K-12 Achievement: 2021 Map and Rankings."

  9. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. "2018 PISA Results."

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