WASHINGTON -- The United States is losing ground in education, as peers across the globe attain bigger gains in student achievement and school graduations, a study shows.
Among adults ages 25 to 34, the United States is ninth among industrialized nations in the share of its population that has at least a high school degree. In the same age group, the United States ranks seventh, with Belgium, in the share of people who hold a college degree.
By both measures, the United States was first as recently as 20 years ago, said Barry McGaw, director of education for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The 30-nation organization develops the yearly rankings as a way for countries to evaluate their education systems and determine whether to change their policies.
McGaw said the United States remains atop the ''knowledge economy," one that uses information to produce economic benefits. But, he said, ''education's contribution to that economy is weakening, and you ought to be worrying."
The report, released yesterday, bases its conclusions about achievement mainly on international test scores released in December. They show that compared with their peers in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, 15-year-olds in the United States are below average in applying math skills to real-life tasks.
The top performers included Finland, Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, and Belgium.
A separate international review last year showed that US eighth-graders were gaining on their peers in science and math. At the same time, however, US fourth-graders were falling behind others as their test scores remain stagnant, that study found.
''We're not just letting down too many of our students; we're [also] not giving our taxpayers the best return on their investments," said Ray Simon, the deputy education secretary, after the report was released.
Younger students are making gains, Simon said, but that progress is often lost by the later grades. He said a move to improve the accuracy of high school graduation data should help steer attention toward students who are at risk of dropping out.
McGaw said other measures of achievement -- including how US students do on the federal math and reading test -- are fair to consider in rating performance.
Given what the United States spends on education, its student achievement through high school shows its school system is ''clearly inefficient," McGaw said.
In all levels of education, the United States spends $11,152 per student. That is the second most, behind the $11,334 spent by Switzerland.
''The very best schools in the US are extraordinary," McGaw said. ''But the big concern in the US is the diversity of quality of institutions -- and the fact that expectations haven't been set high enough."
The Bush administration says the 2002 federal law known as the No Child Left Behind Act is fueling higher achievement among all students -- particularly poor and minority children -- by holding schools accountable for progress. But the international data, mostly gathered in 2003, are not recent enough to confirm that the law is producing results, McGaw said.
Higher education in the United States remains strong, and the nation continues to hold an advantage in innovation based on research conducted at universities, McGaw said.