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From the US Department of Education:


International Comparisons of Education

This chapter offers a broad perspective on education across the nations of the world. It also provides an international context for examining the condition of education in the United States. Historically, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) was not active in collecting international data, but recently NCES has expanded its role by serving as the national research center for the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) Reading Literacy Study and funding international research studies comparing mathematics and science education. These studies include the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and the Second International Assessment of Educational Progress, which provides comparative data for 9- and 13-year-olds. In addition, NCES is cooperating with international agencies in the compilation of statistics and the development of education indicators.

The data in this chapter were drawn from material prepared by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Institute of International Education, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP). The basic summary data on enrollments, teachers, enrollment ratios, and finances were synthesized from information appearing in the annual _Statistical Yearbook_ published by UNESCO. Even though UNESCO tabulations are very carefully prepared, international data users should be cautioned about the many problems of definition and reporting involved in the collection of data about the educational systems in the world.

This chapter provides information from the International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP), sponsored by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the U.S. Department of Education, and the National Science Foundation. The mathematics and science performance of 13-year-old students in 20 countries and 9-year-old students in 14 countries was studied through assessments administered during 1990-91. Some countries assessed nationally representative samples of the two age groups; others limited their assessments to specific geographic areas or language groups.

A different perspective is provided by data on the enrollment of foreign students in U.S. institutions of higher education. These data from the Institute of International Education provide information on the number of foreign students and their countries of origin.

Further information on survey methodologies is in the "Guide to Sources" in the appendix and in the publications cited in the source notes.


Some countries begin educating children at an early age. Preprimary enrollment rates of 4-year-olds are above 85 percent in Belgium, France, Hungary, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. Among 5-year-olds, enrollment rates also are high in Austria, Czech and Slovak Federal Republic, Ireland, and the United States (table 381).

Between 1980 and 1991, enrollments grew rapidly, particularly in the less developed areas of the world. Elementary enrollment changes ranged from increases of 27 percent in Africa and 17 percent in Central and South America to a modest increase of only 1 percent in Europe and Oceania. Enrollment increases at the secondary level were more dramatic, especially in Africa (73 percent), Central and South America (36 percent), and Asia (31 percent). Secondary-level enrollment declined in Europe by 2 percent and Northern America by 10 percent. At the postsecondary level, Asia (84 percent) and Africa (79 percent) had the largest increases followed by Central and South America (59 percent) and Oceania (56 percent). These postsecondary increases are a result of large growth in the school attendance rates and sizable rises in population (table 382).

In 1991, about 992 million students were in schools around the world. Of these students, 621 million were in elementary-level programs, 306 million were in secondary programs, and 65 million were in higher education programs (table 382).

Pupil/teacher ratios in elementary and secondary schools vary widely from country to country. Countries with relatively low elementary ratios in 1991 were Sweden (10.4) and Norway (10.7). Countries with relatively high ratios included Ireland (26.4) and France (22.8) (table 383).

In 1992-93 there were 439,000 foreign students studying at U.S. colleges and universities. This was 19,000 more than the year before, or a 5 percent increase. Approximately 59 percent of the students were from South and East Asian countries (table 401).

Education Systems

Of the 20 countries that participated in the 1991 International Assessment of Educational Progress (IAEP), 16 have national curriculums. Only Canada, Switzerland, and Brazil join the United States in having state or provincial control of education. Eleven of the 20 countries have ethnically homogeneous populations. For the countries participating in the assessment, the average length of the school year ranged from approximately 172 days in Portugal to approximately 251 days in China. The average amount of instruction per school day varied from just under 4 hours in Hungary and Fortaleza, Brazil, to a little over 6 hours in France (table 386).



In the 1991 IAEP mathematics assessment of 9-year-olds from 10 nations that tested nationally representative populations, students from Korea, Hungary, Taiwan, the former Soviet Union, and Israel all had average test scores that were significantly higher than those from the United States. In the assessment of the 13-year-old students in which 15 nations tested nationally representative populations, the average test scores of U.S. students were higher than only one country, Jordan. There was no significant difference between the test scores of U.S. students and those of students from Slovenia and Spain.

The remaining 11 countries all had average test scores that were significantly higher than those of U.S. students (tables 387 and 389).

An analysis of the 1991 IAEP scores on different mathematics topics reveals that U.S. 9-year-old students scored well in the area of data analysis, statistics, and probability. In this area, the average test score of the U.S. 9-year-olds was the same or higher than students in all the other countries that tested comprehensive populations, except for Korea. The U.S. 13-year-olds' average test score in data analysis, statistics, and probability was lower than those of the students in many of the countries testing comprehensive populations. The exceptions were Spain, Slovenia, and Jordan, where the test scores were lower than those of the U.S. 13-year-olds (tables 388 and 390).


In the 1991 IAEP science assessment of 9-year-olds, 10 nations tested nationally representative populations. The average science scores of U.S. students were significantly lower than those of Korean students but about the same as students from Taiwan, Canada, Hungary, Spain, and the former Soviet Union. The IAEP assessment of 13-year-old science students involved 15 nations testing nationally representative populations. Students of six nations (Korea, Taiwan, Switzerland, Hungary, the former Soviet Union, and Slovenia) had average science scores that were higher than those of U.S. students. (Note: In this international assessment of education, the standard errors are relatively large. In the interest of allowing for meaningful comparisons between countries, the IAEP tables in the _Digest of Education Statistics, 1994_ list standard errors.) (tables 392 and 393)

When the results of the 1991 IAEP science assessments are analyzed by subject matter, U.S. 9-year-olds excelled in the earth and space sciences. In this area, U.S. students had average test scores that were significantly higher than their counterparts in Korea and Taiwan but about the same as Hungary (table 391).


On a 1991 International Assessment of Educational Progress in geography, students from Hungary performed at a significantly higher level on the 24 geography items than their counterparts from the other eight countries in the study (Canada, Ireland, Korea, Scotland, Slovenia, the former Soviet Union, Spain, and the United States). On this same assessment, students seemed to perform well on questions involving map or chart-reading skills. On the other hand, students seemed to have more difficulty on questions that required them to combine the use of such skills and prior knowledge of geographic vocabulary, process, or location (table 384).


On a reading literacy assessment of 9- and 14-year-olds in 32 countries, students in Finland were among the best readers at both levels. Students in the United States produced relatively high scores at the 9-year-old level. Among the 14-year-olds, students in the United States also scored in the high performing group, along with students from France, Sweden, New Zealand, Hungary, Iceland, Switzerland, and Hong Kong. American students performed considerably better at the 9-year-old level relative to the other participating countries than at the 14-year-old level (tables 395 and 396).

Degrees and Finances

Ratios of bachelor's degrees conferred per hundred 22- or 23-year-olds ranged from 7 in Turkey and 8 in Austria, Netherlands, and Switzerland to 33 in Canada, 31 in Norway, and 30 in the United States. Over 50 percent of all bachelor's degrees were awarded to women in Canada, Denmark, Norway, Spain, Sweden, and the United States (table 397).

A comparison of public expenditures on education as a percent of gross national product (GNP) reveals significant differences among nations. For example, in the United States the 1990 proportion of GNP for education was 5.8 percent. Other countries ranged from 3.2 percent for Luxembourg, 4.1 for the former West Germany, 4.7 for Japan, to 7.4 percent for Canada, 7.7 percent for Sweden, 7.9 percent for Norway, and 8.2 percent for the�rmer Soviet Union (table 401).

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A 77 point decline in SAT scores impacts the US economic performance severely.

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