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USA's Schools Move Up in World Rankings

Greg Toppo, USA TODAY

USA's Schools Move Up in International RankingsResults from a pair of new international assessments released today show that USA kids are holding their own in math, reading and other subjects. In a few cases, they're actually bypassing the rest of the world.

Who knew, for instance, that Florida fourth-graders now read as well as their peers in Singapore and Finland?

The results could prompt educators to reconsider the results of a decade of school-reform efforts in places such as Florida, even if the achievement picture remains incomplete.

USA students' average scores on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) in math were above the international average in both fourth and eighth grade, the findings show.

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Among the 45 countries that participated in fourth grade, the average USA math score was among the top eight. In eighth grade, the USA was among the top 11 of 38 countries.

In reading, USA students scored 56 points higher than the international average, putting them in the top 13 on the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Only five nations or education systems had higher average scores -- and one of those was Florida, which asked that its scores be compared to those of other nations.

The results are promising: Florida fourth-graders' reading skills, at least on PIRLS, rank among the world's highest. In fact, no one -- not Finland, not Singapore, not Hong Kong -- scored higher.

In a statement, former Florida governor Jeb Bush called the results "great news for Florida's students and teachers."

He added, "Sunshine State students are once again busting all the myths and proving that all kids can and will learn when education is organized around their achievement."

Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education think tank, said the results show "real and significant progress happening in reading in the early elementary grades," not just in Florida, but nationwide.

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics at the U.S. Department of Education, said the rankings don't necessarily mean that Florida fourth-graders are the best in the world. For one thing, he said, Florida was the only state whose reading results were compared internationally.

"I can't prove this, but I suspect if we had been able to give PIRLS to all of our states, we would have had a pretty decent-sized sample of states that were at or exceeding Florida's level," he told reporters Monday.

Also hidden in the data: Finland, long considered to have one of the best, most well-designed education systems in the world, is slipping in math, at least in these results. In fact, it's going in the opposite direction of the USA. which has all but caught up since 1999, TIMSS data show.

Finland doesn't generally participate in TIMSS, but last year, for the first time since 1999, it took part. Today's results show that Finland's eighth-graders have dropped 6 points since then. Meanwhile, USA scores have risen 7 points, putting the two nations statistically even.