Students from Asian countries have outranked others worldwide in a test of high school students conducted every three years. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development says 15-year-olds in Shanghai, China and Singapore scored the highest in math.
The Program for International Student Assessment tested more than half a million students in 65 countries - on math, reading and science.
Asian countries outperformed the rest of the world in math, with the United States scoring below average, with no change from previous testing.
In fact, the 15-year-olds in Shanghai scored the equivalent of two-and-a-half years of schooling above the top U.S. students.
The highest math scores were in Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taipei, and South Korea, followed by Macao, Japan, Liechtenstein, Belgium and Switzerland. Organizers attribute higher scores to parental involvement, better teachers and higher expectations.
Jenny Jung has attended schools in South Korea and the United States. She says her classes in South Korea lasted from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. and were often followed by tutoring.
"It’s very competitive there because it’s a relative grading system, so instead of here, where it’s an absolute grading system, where if you get over a 90, you get an A. If you get over an 80, you get a B. But in Korea, only like the top percentages can get an A," said Jung.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan would like to increase early childhood education and attract quality teachers.
"Virtually every one of the high performing nations attracts their teachers from the top 30 percent of the college graduating class and many from the top 10 percent," said Duncan.
Duncan called on policy makers to make the right choices.
"We know intellectually what the right thing is to do. What we have lacked is the political will and the sense of urgency to take education to the next level," he said.
But the study shows money might not be the only answer. The U.S. already spends $115,000 per student, which is more than most countries. Yet students in the Slovak Republic, which spends less than half that amount, scored near the same level.
Angel Gurria, the secretary general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, warns the United States of consequences if the scores do not rise.
"It shows that we have a lot of homework. It shows that somebody else is doing much better than us and if this continues, over the years, they are going to take away our cheese. Because this translates into productivity, it translates into competitiveness, it translates into exports, it translates into jobs, it translates into well-being. So this is not about just comparing the grades of students," said Gurria.
Critics fault the study for comparing small regions of the world to large countries. They also say the test lacks an assessment of creative and critical thinking, something Brazilian Amanda Peixoto noticed after starting her junior year in the United States.
"They here don’t teach you how to think. They teach you how to respect the rules, they tell you something, and you answer, they tell you and you copy; they don’t teach you how to think," said Peixoto.
The one area in which U.S. students bested their peers was confidence in their math abilities. The challenge for educators is to reflect that confidence in their test scores.