Relatively wealthy Asian nations including South Korea and Singapore, as well as Hong Kong, led a ranking of international student achievement, a result that researchers said reflected a strong societal commitment to primary education.
Morocco and several Middle Eastern nations occupied the bottom of the rankings of fourth-grade student performances in reading, science and math, reflecting the challenges caused by poverty and relatively new educational systems, according to two Boston College-backed studies released on Tuesday.
The studies found that international student achievement generally has improved in the past decade as more nations have increased their focus on education, with top-performing Asian countries holding their lead in math and science and gaining ground in reading.
"In the beginning, when we were assessing the reading, they were not necessarily at the top of the charts," said Ina Mullis, a Boston College professor who worked on the studies. "A decade later they are."
The improvement reflects a focused effort both by parents to read more to their children in the home and official efforts to make school reading programs more rigorous, Mullis said.
The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study evaluated 63 countries' performance in science and math while the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study evaluated 49 nations' performance in reading.
Hong Kong, Russia and Finland recorded the top-three performances in fourth-grade reading, the studies found. In science, South Korea, Singapore and Finland led, with Singapore, South Korea and Finland leading in math.
The United States ranked sixth in fourth-grade reading, 11th in science and seventh in math.
Canada ranked 12th in fourth-grade reading. The nation did not participate in the science and math rankings, although the provinces of Quebec, Ontario and Alberta did and all three ranked above average in each subject.
The poorest reading performances came in Morocco, Oman and Qatar. Yemen, Morocco and Kuwait trailed in math, with Yemen, Morocco and Tunisia occupying the bottom spots in science.
Their struggles reflect the difficulty of establishing new school systems, said Boston College professor Michael Martin, another study author.
"Education is a multi-generational enterprise, so if you go back 30 or 40 years, many of these countries really did not have an education system, with only a small group of people getting a decent education," Martin said. "When parents haven't been to school and are not literate. This is a big problem to overcome."
While well-funded, well-organized school systems produced the most able students, the studies found performance was not purely dependent on schools. The top performing students were those children raised in homes where books were present and they regularly were read to and saw others reading or engaged in math-related activities like games.
The math and science studies found many countries did better in teaching the basic rules of those subjects than in teaching their application, with students struggling to think of ways to use their knowledge to analyze a problem.
The rankings are based on 900,000 tests of students in their fourth year of formal schooling, typically aged 10 or 11, in countries that opt into the studies. The math and science study is conducted every four years and the reading study every five. They overlapped this year by coincidence.
Martin said the studies aimed to improve world educational standards by showing educators what other countries had achieved.
"One thing you can learn from these is what's possible," Martin said. "That comes as a shock sometimes, what students in other countries can actually do and the gap sometimes between what your students are achieving and what students in other countries are achieving."