PISA Scores: American 15-Year-Olds Among the Best at Reading, the Worst at Math in Developed Countries

December 3, 2019 Updated: December 3, 2019

Teenagers in the United States are among the top performers in reading proficiency in developed countries, while consistently underperforming the rest of the developed nations in math, according to the latest Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) results.

Run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), PISA is conducted every three years to compare the performance of 15-year-olds in standardized reading, math, and science tests. About 600,000 students from 79 countries took part in the assessment in 2018, representing 37 OECD countries including the United States and 42 partner countries.

The 2018 PISA results, which were released Tuesday, showed that American students recorded an average score of 505 points in reading tests on a scale of 1,000, significantly above the OECD average of 487 points. The United States also had a larger percentage of top performers in reading literacy than the OECD average (14 vs. 9 percent, respectively).

OISA score 2018
Average scores of 15-year-old students on the PISA reading literacy scale. (National Center for Education Statistics)

In science, the United States also outperformed the average for all OECD ranked countries. When it came to math skills, however, the U. S. students continued to be outperformed by peers from other developed countries. Out of all 37 OECD countries, only Israel, Turkey, Greece, Chile, Mexico, and Colombia scored less than the United States in the math test. Most of these countries were also the worst performers in reading and science.

PISA score math 2018
Average scores of 15-year-old students on the PISA math literacy scale. (National Center for Education Statistics)

Overall, the United States’ 2018 PISA scores remained largely unchanged from when the tests were last given in 2015. They were similar to those of students in Australia, Germany, New Zealand, Sweden, and the United Kingdom in at least two of these three subjects.

Moreover, the OECD found (pdf) that immigrant students, who made up 23 percent of all U.S. students taking the 2018 PISA tests, performed significantly better than their non-immigrant peers after taking into account students’ and schools’ socio-economic profile.

In the United States, boys outperformed girls in math. Girls outperformed boys in reading both in the United States and on average across all participating OECD countries. American girls and boys performed similarly in science.

The top of the 2018 PISA leaderboard is once again dominated by Asian countries. China and Singapore ranked first and second, respectively, in all three domains. China’s score, which was calculated using results from just two of its most developed cities, Beijing and Shanghai, and two of its richest provinces, Jiangsu and Zhejiang, could remotely represent the nation as a whole.