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New report ranks U.S. teens 29th in science worldwide

Why this information could be a useful tool in improving science education.

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The United States lags behind most other developed countries when it comes to science education.

That, at least, is one conclusion of a major report released Tuesday by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). It measures student literacy in science, math, and reading (focusing this year on science) among 15-year-olds, and is an often-cited reference for policymakers sounding the alarm bells about the state of education in the United States and its implications for the ability of Americans to secure jobs in a global economy.

Finland emerged at the top of 57 countries in science, according to the 2006 survey results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The US ranked 29th, behind countries like Croatia, the Czech Republic, and Liechtenstein, and ahead of just nine other OECD countries.

"What once was the gold standard [for international education] is now not even at the OECD average, which shows you how much the world has changed," says Andreas Schleicher, who helped write the report. The US is average in the number of students at the highest levels of scientific literacy, but has a much larger pool – nearly 1 in 4 – at the bottom, Mr. Schleicher notes. "We have stand-alone studies that suggest these kids have grim prospects in the labor market," he says.

That worry has energized education advocates and reformers, who see the test as a useful tool to catalyze public opinion behind the need for fundamental change in how America educates.

"To most policymakers there's almost a believed connection between how well our kids do in school and how well our economy does in the global economy," says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. "To the extent that you have first-class bulletproof studies saying this over and over, it provides some powerful ammunition... to make the kind of investments in our schools that we really have to make."


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