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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Richardson Flunks Two Subjects

He keeps claiming U.S. students rank 29th in math and science, but they score better than that.


Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, has claimed again and again U.S. students, from kindergarten through 12th grade, are ranked 29th in the world in math and science. He claims they used to be No. 1, too. But none of that is true.

The two leading international assessments of student achievement rank U.S. students better in all cases, and in most cases much better, than Richardson claims. Furthermore, neither of them even tries to cover all grades K through 12. We’ve asked the Richardson campaign several times in recent days to provide a citation, but so far they’ve produced nothing that supports a 29th-place ranking.

Richardson’s “No. 1” claim must refer to some mythical past unknown to educational experts and historians. We’ve found no authoritative study that has ever ranked U.S. grade-school and high-school students first in math and science.

In fact, the studies all show the U.S. could do much better, particularly at the high-school level where scores are actually below the international average. Our criticism is that Richardson is using a fanciful number that paints too dark a picture.


It’s certainly true that U.S. students don’t lead the pack in math and science, and Americans have been fretting about that at least as far back as 1957, when the former Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space by launching a basketball-size artificial satellite named Sputnik I. Richardson, however, exaggerates. And he’s hammered away at it relentlessly.

Twenty-Ninth in Math and Science

We first heard Richardson mention the faulty statistic on July 23 at the CNN/YouTube debate, where he said “our kids that are not scoring well in science and math” are “29th in the world.” He has reiterated some version of that line in two subsequent debates:

Richardson (Univision debate, Sept. 9): Science and math. We are behind. We’re 29th in the world in science and math in K through 12.

Richardson (ABC News Debate, Aug. 19): [Y]ou know, we are 29th in the world in math and science. We need to have 100,000 new math and science teachers. We have to be No. 1 again.

He also has used the statistic on the stump in Iowa, Nevada and New Hampshire, according to local news reports. And he includes the tidbit on his Web site, albeit with a slightly higher rating for U.S. school children: “Today, we rank 28th in the world in math and science education,” says a Richardson policy report on jobs and the economy.

A Look at the Numbers

So, you might think that Richardson could easily cite a source for that statistic. But when we asked Richardson’s campaign for a source, press representatives twice pointed us to a study that doesn’t come close to supporting his claim.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The campaign cited the Trends in International Math and Science Study, conducted in the U.S. by the National Center for Education Statistics. And what the most recent TIMSS study actually shows is that in 2003 U.S. students aged 9 (fourth graders) ranked above the average: 12th in math and 6th in science (out of 25 nations participating).

American 13-year-olds (eighth graders) also ranked above average. They came in  15th in math and 9th in science among the 45 nations that participated in that segment of the study.

And although Richardson constantly refers to his ranking as applying across the board to grades K through 12, neither TIMSS nor the other leading survey of math and science achievement covers all grades.

That other study rates 15-year-olds (most of them 10th graders) and is conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. That showed U.S. students 28th in math and 22nd in science, out of a total of 39 countries studied.

Formerly No. 1?

At the Aug. 19 ABC News debate, Richardson said that “we have to be No. 1 again.” Newspapers in Nevada and Iowa also quote him as saying the U.S. “used to be No. 1.” We couldn’t find anything in either TIMSS or the OECD study to support that claim. We asked around places including the Department of Education, the National Science Foundation and the Institute of Education Sciences for anyone who’s heard of a study that ever put U.S. grade-school and high-school students at the top of the heap in math and science. So far, nothing. If we hear of any we’ll let you know.

– by Emi Kolawole, Jess Henig and Lori Robertson


Nixon, Amy Ash. “New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson Visits Whitefield on N.H. Tour.” The Caledonian-Record (St. Johnsbury, Vermont). 12 Sept. 2007.

McMurdo, Doug. “Richardson wows Elko.” Elko Daily Free Press. 14 July 2007.

Strandberg, Sarah. “Richardson speaks to crowd in Decorah.” Decorah Newspapers. Accessed 12 Sept. 2007.

National Center for Educational Statistics. “International Outcomes of Learning in Mathematics Literacy and Problem Solving: PISA 2003 Results from the U.S. Perspective Highlights.” Washington: GPO, 2004.

Mullis, I.V.S., et al. TIMSS 2003 International Mathematics Report. International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. 2004.

Martin, M.O., et al. TIMSS 2003 International Science Report. International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement. 2004.