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US teens lag in global education rankings as Asian countries rise to the top

After about half a million students took the PISA exams, US performance remained flat. America has a child poverty rate nearly double that of some countries that outperform the United States, which is thought to be a factor. Experts say the test results will likely intensify the debate over education reform. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

Students in the United States made scant headway on recent global achievement exams and slipped deeper in the international rankings amid fast-growing competition abroad, according to test results released Tuesday.

American teens scored below the international average in math and roughly average in science and reading, compared against dozens of other countries that participated in the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), which was administered last fall.

Vietnam, which had its students take part in the exam for the first time, had a higher average score in math and science than the United States. Students in Shanghai — China's largest city with upwards of 20 million people — ranked best in the world, according to the test results. Students in East Asian countries and provinces came out on top, nabbing seven of the top 10 places across all three subjects.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan characterized the flat scores as a "picture of educational stagnation."

"We must invest in early education, raise academic standards, make college affordable, and do more to recruit and retain top-notch educators," Duncan said.

Roughly half a million students in 65 nations and educational systems representing 80 percent of the global economy took part in the 2012 edition of PISA, which is coordinated by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD.

The numbers are even more sobering when compared among only the 34 OECD countries. The United States ranked 26th in math — trailing nations such as the Slovakia, Portugal and Russia. What’s more, American high school students dropped to 21st in science (from 17th in 2009) and slipped to 17th in reading (from 14th in 2009), according to the results.

“These numbers are very discouraging,” Eric A. Hanushek, an expert on educational policy and a Paul and Jean Hanna Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, told NBC News. “They say that we have to work more seriously at trying to raise the performance that leads to these scores.”

The exam, which has been administered every three years to 15-year-olds, is designed to gauge how students use the material they have learned inside and outside the classroom to solve problems.

U.S. scores on the PISA have stayed relatively flat since testing began in 2000. And meanwhile, students in countries like Ireland and Poland have demonstrated marked improvement — even surpassing U.S. students, according to the results.

Top Talkers: Teenagers are making no progress on international achievement exams, the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment results show. Jon Meacham, Julie Pace and Mike Barnicle discuss.

"It's hard to get excited about standing still while others around you are improving, so I don't want to be too positive," Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told the Associated Press.

Duncan said the results were at "odds with our aspiration to have the best-educated, most competitive work force in the world."

The scores are likely to reopen a long-simmering political debate about the state of education in America as economically ascendant nations like China eclipse U.S. students' performance.

American students historically have ranked low on international assessments, owing to a range of social and economic factors — from skyrocketing rates of child poverty to sheer population diversity. Nearly 6,100 American students participated in this round of testing.

"Socio-economic background has a significant impact on student performance in the United States, with some 15% of the variation in student performance explained by this, similar to the OECD average," according to a PISA summary of U.S. performance. "Although this impact has weakened over time, disadvantaged students show less engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs."

Shanghai students also dominated the PISA exam in 2009, according to the AP.

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the wire service that the educational system in that city is not equitable — and the students tested are progeny of the elite because they are the only ones permitted to attend municipal schools due to restrictions that, among other things, prohibit many migrant children.

"The Shanghai scores frankly to me are difficult to interpret," Loveless told the wire service. "They are almost meaningless."

Buckley told the AP that U.S. officials have not encountered any evidence of a "biased sample" of students administered the exam in Shanghai. He said if the whole country was included, it is unclear what the results would show.

Hanushek told NBC News that the performance of Asian teens says a great deal about the modern mindset of the Far East.

“These East Asian countries are hungry,” Hanushek said. “They have the view that improving their lives and improving their future depends on education.”

And the U.S., he added, has grown too accustomed to leading the world in knowledge that it may have lost its edge.

“We have the strongest economy in the world. But everybody is too complacent,” Hanushek said.

The test is premised on a 1,000-point scale. Here's a sampling of the leading findings:

— In math, the U.S. average score was 481. Average scores ranged from 368 in Peru to 613 in Shanghai. The global average was 494.

— In science, the U.S. average score was 497. Average scores ranged from 373 in Peru to 580 in Shanghai. The global average was 501.

— In reading, the U.S. average score was 498. Average scores ranged from 384 in Peru to 570 in Shanghai. The global average was 496.

Students from all states were tested. For the first time, three states — Massachusetts, Connecticut and Florida — elected to boost participation in PISA to get more state-specific data.

Average scores from Massachusetts rose above the international average in all three subject areas. Connecticut students scored on average near the global average in math and higher than the global average in science and reading. Florida students on average scored below the global average in math and science and near the global average in reading, according to the AP.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.