Math Scores Dropped Globally, but the U.S. Still Trails Other Countries

The math performance of U.S. teenagers has sharply declined since 2018, with scores lower than 20 years ago, and with American students continuing to trail global competitors, according to the results of a key international exam released on Tuesday.

In the first comparable global results since the coronavirus pandemic, 15-year-olds in the United States scored below students in similar industrialized democracies like the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany, and well behind students in the highest-performing countries such as Singapore, South Korea and Estonia — continuing an underperformance in math that predated the pandemic.

The bleak math results were offset by a stronger performance in reading and science, where the United States scored above average internationally.

About 66 percent of U.S. students performed at least at a basic level in math, compared with about 80 percent in reading and science, according to the exam, the Program for International Student Assessment, known as PISA.

The exam was last given in 2018 and measures the performance of 15-year-olds around the world, with an emphasis on real-world skills. Typically administered every three years, it was delayed a year during the pandemic. Nearly 700,000 teenagers around the world took the exam in 2022.

The results are the latest indicator of an American education system that struggles to prepare all students from an early age, with proficiency in math dropping the longer students remain in the system. National test results last year also reported greater declines in math compared with reading, a subject that can be more influenced by what happens at home and was less affected by school closures.

Globally, students lost the equivalent of three-quarters of a year of learning in math, which was the primary focus of the 2022 test. And only a few countries — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Switzerland and Australia — maintained high levels of math performance through the pandemic.

Countries that kept schools closed longer generally saw bigger declines.

But the results were mixed. Even with its declines in math, the United States lost less ground than some European countries that prioritized opening schools more quickly. And the United States held steady in reading and science.

The United States even moved up in world rankings — largely because of the declines of other nations.

President Biden’s secretary of education, Miguel A. Cardona, cautiously celebrated the United States’ improvement in global rankings, which he attributed in part to a $122 billion federal relief package for schools that he said “kept the United States in the game.”

Still, the United States, the world’s largest economy, is far from a global leader in education, even as it spends more on education per student than many other countries.

In math, the United States ranked 28th out of 37 participating countries from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, made up mostly of industrialized democracies that account for a majority of world trade.

“I don’t think you can drop much lower,” said Andreas Schleicher, the director for education and skills at the O.E.C.D., which oversees the exam. “You don’t want to compare the U.S.” to less advanced economies, he said.

Even relatively affluent U.S. students did not score as high in math as the average-performing student in top places like Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

“It’s not just poor kids from poor neighborhoods,” Mr. Schleicher said. Half of 15-year-olds in Hong Kong performed as well or better than the wealthiest 10 percent of American students, he said.

Just 7 percent of U.S. students scored at the highest levels in math, compared with 23 percent in Japan and South Korea, and 41 percent in Singapore, the top-performing country.

“From a competition lens, this is not where you want to be,” said Tracey Burns, chief of research and evaluation at the National Center on Education and the Economy, which studies high-performing school systems. She noted that there was also a gender divide in math: 10 percent of U.S. boys scored at the highest level, compared with 5 percent of girls.

Perhaps equally concerning: One in three U.S. students scored below a basic level of math proficiency, indicating that they struggle with skills they may need in the real world, such as using ratios to solve problems.

In a surprising result, the PISA test did not find a growing gap in math and reading between the highest and lowest U.S. performers during the pandemic, contrary to some other test results among younger students. (It did find a widened gap in science.)

But few lower-income students are making it to the top, a troubling trend across countries.

In the United States, about one in 10 students from disadvantaged backgrounds scored in the top quartile in math.

Many disadvantaged students are not given access to rigorous math instruction, starting from a young age, said Shalinee Sharma, the chief executive of Zearn, a widely used math platform for elementary and middle school students.

Unlike some countries that embrace math as a learned skill, the United States tends to treat math as a talent — designating only certain students as “math kids,” she said. That philosophy can especially hurt low-income students.

“When they do get access to high-quality math learning,” she said, “they excel.”

On other measures, the United States stood out for having more children living with food insecurity (13 percent, compared with an average of 8 percent in other O.E.C.D. countries), more students who are lonely at school (22 percent, versus 16 percent) and more students who do not feel safe at school (13 percent, versus 10 percent).