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

How it hurts the economy and you

Young Asian student in a school room

David Butow / Kontributor

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

Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science when testing was last administered in 2018.
  • The top five math-scoring countries in 2018 were all in Asia.
  • U.S. students' math scores have remained steady since 2003. Their science scores have been about the same since 2006.
  • The IMD World Competitiveness Center reports that the U.S. ranked 10th in its 2020 Competitiveness Report after ranking first in 2018.

Comparing Test Scores

The Program for International Student Assessment is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and it tests 15-year-old students around the world. The U.S. placed 11th out of 79 countries in science when the test was last administered in 2018. 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: 569
  • Macao: 555
  • Hong Kong: 551
  • Taiwan: 531
  • Japan: 527

China was not included in this ranking because only four provinces participated.

The United States scored 502 in science, above the OECD average of 489. The top five highest scorers in science were:

  • Singapore: 551
  • Macao: 544
  • Estonia: 530
  • Japan: 529
  • Finland: 522

It's clear when analyzing the U.S. results that the scores have been stable over time. They're not declining but there aren't any signs of improvement, either. There's been no detectable change in U.S. students' math scores since 2003 or in 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. Silicon Valley is America's high-tech innovation center but one reason for its success is the cultural diversity of its foreign-born software engineers.


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

Eric A. Hanushek, an economist from the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, estimated that the U.S. economy would grow 4.5% in 20 years if our students’ math and science skills were as strong as those of the rest of the world. But 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

Some Americans see no problem with the state of U.S. education. Nearly half of those who participated in an Associated Press poll said in 2008 that American students’ achievement test scores were the same as or better than those of children in other industrialized nations. But 90% of them did recognize that education helps economic growth.

The U.S. ranks near the bottom in a survey of students’ math skills in 30 industrialized countries and many Americans are in denial. The same survey showed that one-third believed their own schools were excellent, but only one-sixth believed the same of other schools. The states that are the 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. ranked 10th in its 2020 Competitiveness Report. The U.S. fell to the third spot in 2019 after ranking first in 2018. The seven-point tumble to 10th place represents the lowest the U.S. has ever been in the annual ranking system.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

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

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 doesn't 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.

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

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

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

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

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

  6. National Center for Education Statistics. "U.S. Public Education Spending Statistics."

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

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