You’ve probably seen article after article discussing how American students and adults are not performing very well in international comparisons of math and verbal skills on tests like the PISA and the OECD Survey of Adult skills. In fact, the 2012 PISA results were just released, and there is again much talk about how the U.S. is doing terribly compared to many other nations.

And it is true that, on average, American students and adults are rather mediocre.

Amanda Ripley recently wrote a book, The Smartest Kids In The World, which warns the U.S. is not doing well so we should look to other school systems (such as Finland) who perform at the top of tests like PISA. Kevin Drum criticized Ripley’s reliance on PISA, asking How Smart Are American Kids?  Drum argues: “She ignores [other international tests] with longer pedigrees, like the TIMSS, on which Americans do fairly well.”

Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson uncovered that the “smart fraction” of a country is quite influential in impacting the performance of that country, for example, its GDP. And they used measures such as PISA and TIMSS because researchers have found these tests actually measure g or general intelligence to a large degree. So if we are really interested in which country is the smartest, shouldn’t we see how well the smart fraction of that country is performing? The performance of average students in a country may in fact be quite different from the performance of students in the right tail.

But then there’s also the factor of sheer numbers of smart people within a given country. A small country like Finland may have a large percentage of students scoring at very high levels, but overall the impact of that population might be quite small because there are only a handful of people who score highly.

In a recent article titled The 25 Countries With The Most Brainpower, Max Nisen and I used data from PISA in 2009 to examine which country was the smartest. However, to focus the piece we only reported some of the analyses. In our larger set of analyses we examined data from both PISA in 2009 as well as the OECD Survey of Adult Skills in 2013. Now that data from PISA 2012 has been released, this data will be used in the following analyses.

Our methods were as follows.  We first took the math and verbal score average percentages from students and adults scoring at the highest level on the international comparisons. For the PISA this was level 6 and for the OECD Survey of Adult Skills this was level 5. We then took those percentages and multiplied them by the raw number of people in the top 1 percent in ability in a given country, so approximately 1 percent of the country’s population, to get a measure of right tail brainpower.

Here are the rankings for kids and adults for just the top 25:

The Smartest Kids In The World

1.    Japan
2.    United States
3.    Shanghai-China
4.    Korea
5.    Chinese Taipei
6.    Germany
7.    France
8.    Viet Nam
9.    Russian Federation
10.  United Kingdom
11.  Poland
12.  Canada
13.  Italy
14.  Australia
15.  Singapore
16.  Turkey
17.  Hong Kong-China
18.  Netherlands
19.  Belgium
20.  Spain
21.  Switzerland
22.  Czech Republic
23.  Thailand
24.  New Zealand
25.  Finland

The Smartest Adults In The World

1.    United States
2.    Japan
3.    Germany
4.    Russian Federation
5.    England/N. Ireland (UK)
6.    England (UK)
7.    Canada
8.    Australia
9.    Poland
10.  France
11.  Netherlands
12.  Sweden
13.  Finland
14.  Korea
15.  Italy
16.  Czech Republic
17.  Flanders (Belgium)
18.  Austria
19.  Denmark
20.  Norway
21.  Spain
22.  Slovak Republic
23.  Ireland
24.  Northern Ireland (UK)
25.  Estonia

Interestingly, the U.S. is ranked number one for adults and number two for kids! But if you just looked at the average, the U.S. would be ranked in the middle of the pack. And in PISA 2009, the U.S. actually edged out Japan for the lead (see here). Of course, not all countries took part in these exams, including China (as a whole) and India. As I pointed out in my article Of Brainiacs And Billionaires: “According to recent population estimates, there are about eight Chinese and Indians for every American in the top 1 percent in brains.” But consider that the U.S. benefits from the smart fractions of every other country in the world because it continues to serve as a magnet for brainpower, something that is not even factored into these rankings.

What these rankings clearly show is America is likely still in the lead in terms of brainpower. And this is despite the fact federal funding for educating our smart fraction is currently zero. Everyone seems worried Americans are falling behind, but this is because everyone is focusing on average and below average people. Maybe it’s time we started taking a closer look at the smartest people of our own country.

© 2013 by Jonathan Wai

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