WASHINGTON -- American fourth-graders are performing better than they were four years ago in math and reading, but students four years older show no such progress, a global study released Tuesday revealed.
Although the United States remains in the top dozen or so countries in all subjects tested, the gap between the United States and the top-performing nations is much wider at the eighth-grade level, especially in math.
"When you start looking at our older students, we see less improvement over time," said Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, which coordinated the U.S. portion of the international exam.
Even where U.S. student scores have improved, many other nations have improved much faster, leaving American students far behind many of their peers -- especially in Asia and Europe.
With an eye toward global competitiveness, U.S. education officials are sounding the alarm over what they describe as a recurring theme when American students are put to the test. Lamenting what he described as "sober cautionary notes," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said it was unacceptable that eighth-grade achievement in math and science is stagnant, with U.S. students far less likely than many Asian counterparts to reach advanced levels in science. "If we as a nation don't turn that around, those nations will soon be out-competing us in a knowledge-based, global economy," Mr. Duncan said.
American students still perform better than the global average in all subject areas, the study found, although students from the poorest U.S. schools fall short.
But the United States is far from leading the pack, a distinction now enjoyed by kids in nations such as Finland and Singapore, who outperformed American fourth-graders in science and reading. By eighth grade, American students have fallen behind their Russian, Japanese and Taiwanese counterparts in math and trail students from Hong Kong, Slovenia and South Korea in science.
The results of the study, conducted every four years in nations around the world, show mixed prospects for delivering on that promise. A nation that once took pride in being at the top of its game can no longer credibly call itself the global leader in student performance.
Elevating the skills needed to compete with emerging nations has been a priority for President Barack Obama, who has pledged to train 100,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade. "Think about the America within our reach: a country that leads the world in educating its people. An America that attracts a new generation of high-tech manufacturing and high-paying jobs," he said this year in his State of the Union address.
In 2011, 56 educational systems -- mostly countries, but some states and subnational entities such as Hong Kong -- took part in math and science exams. Fifty-three systems participated in the reading exam, which included almost 13,000 American fourth-graders.