10 Surprising Countries That Beat Us in Science

by Staff Writers

The U.S. stands out from the crowd in many ways, but average test scores in science and math usually don’t place our nation in the top tier. While there are many top-notch educational facilities in our country, from elementary all the way up to college, overall, the American educational system could use a major overhaul. Students simply haven’t been keeping up with those in other nations when it comes to learning the basics of math and science, a fact that could leave us behind in an economy driven by technology.

While there are many nations with amazing educational systems that you might expect to outpace American students in science, there are a number of other, more surprising, countries that fare better as well. Here, we’ve listed just a few of the countries you might not expect to best us in science scores, but that national studies have found actually do — with some beating Americans quite soundly.

  1. Czech Republic: The Czech Republic has a tumultuous past, having been renamed and reorganized several times during the past century. As recently as 1993, the Czech Republic was part of the larger nation of Czechoslovakia, but through a peaceful dissolution it became its own nation. While the Czech Republic may have had an interesting past, even over the past two decades, today the nation is one of the most peaceful, democratic, and healthy in Europe, though many in the U.S. might know little about it. Education is also blossoming in the Czech Republic, and the education system is currently ranked 15th in the world by the Programme for International Student Development. Science scores easily outpace those here, with students in eighth (Czech eighth graders are second in the world in science test scores) and 12th grade scoring higher than U.S. students.
  2. Hungary: At various points in history, Hungary was one of the cultural centers of the Western world, but after World War I, the nation lost more than 70% of its territory and more than 33% of its population. The years that followed were full of political and economic tumult, but today Hungary is a stable and thriving nation. While many U.S. students struggle with science education, those in Hungary score quite well on international assessments. For example, Hungarian eighth graders average 554 in science, while U.S. students were at 534 in the same year. U.S. students do catch up in high school, however.
  3. Bulgaria: This small nation in the Balkans must be doing something right when it comes to science education. Despite major conflicts during World War II and political upheaval until the late 1980s, the nation boasts great science and math test scores for students. On the International Mathematics and Science Study, Bulgarian students scored well in science, especially at the eighth grade level, when the nation ranked fifth in the world (of the nations studied), a fair amount above the U.S.’s 17th place finish for the same grade.
  4. Slovenia: Bordering Italy and Croatia, most in the U.S. likely know little of this small European nation. Slovenia is a relatively new country, declaring independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, but it has a long history and culture. While Slovenia may be relatively new, its education system is getting things right, and is currently ranked the 12th best in the world and the 4th best in the EU. Students in Slovenia scored better than U.S. students in science both in eighth and 12th grade assessments by the TIMSS. They also did better in the Programme for International Student Assessment, ranking 17th in science, with U.S. students coming in 23rd.
  5. Estonia: Estonia is a tiny Baltic nation that in recent years had a tough battle to get independence from Soviet Russia, finally becoming autonomous in 1991. Today, it is one of the wealthiest former Soviet republics and boasts a great deal of political, economic, and educational freedom. Students in Estonia can expect to get an education in science that may be markedly better than that of U.S. students. According to PISA tests, Estonia ranks ninth in the world for science scores, outpacing nations like Australia, Germany, and Australia.
  6. Macau: Macau is technically part of China, but is one of the nation’s two special administrative regions (the other being Hong Kong), and Macau operates its legal, economic, and immigration departments. Macau is a nation perhaps best known for gambling and tourism, so it might be surprising that it produces such standout scores in math and science. It’s even more surprising when you consider that the nation has no universal education system, and few residents have a secondary or college education. Still, students who do pursue education in Macau do well, ranking the small nation 18th in the world in science scores.
  7. Poland: Poland was virtually destroyed during World War II, and its culture, economy, population, infrastructure, and stability all took a major hit. It took decades to recover, but today Poland has a very high standard of living and a respectable education system. While Poland’s education system is ranked 23rd in the world, its science scores earn it a higher spot at 19th, just a few spots higher than the U.S.
  8. Russia: Russia may not be known for its education system, but that doesn’t mean students in the Russian Federation aren’t getting the knowledge they need, especially when it comes to science. This former Soviet nation has free education for all citizens, but getting into colleges and universities is extremely competitive, and as a result students put a great deal of effort into boosting their science and technology knowledge. That studying pays off, earning Russian students average scores on TIMSS that are just a few points higher than those in the U.S.
  9. Australia: That famous laid-back Aussie attitude may be applied to many aspects of life in Australia, but education isn’t one of them. Australia currently ranks 10th in the world for science education via the PISA evaluation and scores exceptionally well on the TIMSS assessment as well, outperforming the U.S. in all grades except for fourth, where it doesn’t lag far behind.
  10. China: It comes as no surprise that China is best ranked in the world when it comes to science education (and math, and reading), but what may be surprising is just how much better students score than those in the U.S. Fourth graders in Hong Kong scored an average of 554 on world math and science assessments, where students in the U.S. score 539. The PISA assessment found an even bigger gap, with science students in Shanghai averaging 575 and U.S. students just 502.

Of course, these scores and rankings should be taken in stride, as they don’t represent every student or every school. It’s also important to note that the U.S. beats out other nations with stellar educational systems like Norway, Iceland, and France when it comes to science education, so for everything the U.S. system is doing wrong, there’s also something they’re doing right.