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Published: July 4, 2011

International Association for the Evaluation
of Educational Achievement

An organization founded in 1959 to provide comparative assessments of schools and student achievement in member nations. Headquartered in Ghent, Belgium, the association published the landmark first edition of its multivolume International Evaluation of Educational Achievement in 1976. Continuing studies have since determined the knowledge and skills of 10-year-olds, 15-year-olds and students in the terminal year of full-time secondary schooling in several dozen participating countries, including the United States. The original, NORM-REFERENCED TESTS measured science knowledge and skills, reading comprehension, knowledge of literature, knowledge of French as a foreign language (in 1959, still the most widely studied modern language), and extent of civic education of 250,000 students in 22 nations, including the United States.
Young Americans tended to score well in comparison with their overseas counterparts in literature and civics, but they fared poorly in mathematics and in French. Indeed, IEA’s First International Mathematics Study in 1964 and the subsequent Second International Mathematics Study in 1985 found that American students ranked among the lowest in the industrial world. The results so embarrassed state and federal educational officials that the U.S. Congress adopted a new program—GOALS 2000— to improve mathematics and science education and to lift American students to a top international ranking by the year 2000.
In 1991, the IEA’s International Assessment of Educational Progress found that American nine-year-olds ranked ninth (ahead of Slovenia) among 10 nations in mathematics proficiency, but third, behind South Korea and Taiwan, in science. American 13-year-olds ranked 14th, ahead of Jordan, in mathematics proficiency and 13th, ahead of Ireland and Jordan, in science proficiency among students from 15 nations. Countries variously involved in the studies were Belgium (both Flemish and French), Canada, England and Wales, Finland, Japan, France, Hong Kong, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Nigeria, Scotland, Slovenia, Swaziland, Thailand and the United States. The poor showing of American schoolchildren provoked widespread demands for reform of American public school education. By 2000, however, those reforms seemed to be having little effect. American 15-year-olds ranked 18th in the industrialized world in reading literacy, 28th in mathematics literacy and 14th in science literacy, same-aged students in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, Finland, Norway, South Korea, and Sweden consistently outscored their American counterparts.
Critics of international testing, however, contend that comparisons between American and foreign public-school students are grossly inaccurate for a variety of reasons. First, enrollment rates differ sharply. Although elementary school education is compulsory throughout the industrialized world and enrollment rates approach 100%, enrollment rates in secondary schools average a mere 58% in the foreign developed world, where, at 14, children must pass competitive examinations to remain in the academic education system and subject to international testing. The other children go either to vocational schools or into apprenticeships, where they no longer participate in international testing. In contrast, 98% of American children enroll in conventional secondary schools, where underperforming youngsters from economically and culturally deprived minorities and immigrants alike participate with all other students in the international tests.
Still another aspect of foreign education that critics say make test results for Americans meaningless is school structure. Unlike American high schools, foreign secondary schools include no sports or recreation in their curricula and compress the equivalent of the first two years of the American college curriculum into their secondary school curriculum. Eighteenyear- olds graduate from high school with baccalaureates, or bachelor’s degrees, and go on to university to obtain their master’s degrees. At 18, they are thus two or more academic years ahead of their American contemporaries; at 15 they are at least one year ahead. Most secondary school systems in other countries are self-selective, automatically weeding out low achievers when they reach the age of 12 or 14 and either sending them off to labor, as they do in developing countries, or to apprenticeships or vocational schools, as they do in the more advanced, industrialized nations such as France, Germany and Japan, among others. The process allows only the academically gifted to remain in academic high schools to compete in international testing with a far more average cross section of American high school students. (See also HIGH SCHOOLS, U.S. VS. FOREIGN.)