After a decade of intensive efforts to improve its schools, the United States posted these results in a new global survey of 15-year-old student achievement: average in reading, average in science and slightly below average in math.
Those middling scores lagged behind results from several countries in Europe and Asia in the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
South Korea is an emerging academic powerhouse. Finland and Singapore continue to flex their muscles. And the Chinese city of Shanghai, participating for the first time in the Program for International Student Assessment, topped the 2009 rankings of dozens of countries and a handful of subnational regions.
U.S. officials said the results show that the nation is slipping further behind its competitors despite years spent seeking to raise performance in reading and math through the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and a host of other reforms.
"For me, it's a massive wake-up call," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday.
The Obama administration is likely to use the results to press Congress next year to rewrite the federal education law to prod states to do more to help the lowest-performing schools.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is a 34-nation organization, based in Paris, that seeks to promote sustainable growth, world trade and higher living standards. Its testing program tracks the knowledge and problem-solving abilities of 15-year-olds every three years.
The report released Tuesday focused on reading ability and found that more than a dozen countries, from South Korea to Poland, performed significantly better than the organization's statistical average in that area. The United States did not.
The U.S. scores of 500 in reading and 502 in science, on a 1,000-point scale, were about average, according to the report. The U.S. math score of 487 was below the average of 496.
At the top of the pack in science were Finland, Japan and South Korea. The top three performers in reading were South Korea, Finland and Canada. The highest-scoring countries in math were South Korea, Finland and Switzerland.