In international comparisons among about 50 countries and states, California eighth-graders scored right in the middle in math and science but lower than the U.S. average.

Despite their ranking, California's students tested just below the "high" level on both subjects, according to 2011 data analyzed by the National Center for Education Statistics from a sampling of students.

California participated as a state only in the eighth-grade math and science tests, administered last year for the first time since 2007.

In math, California students scored 493 on a 1-to-1,000 scale that sets the average at 500. The state did better than 27 other countries and states and worse than 22 others. California's scores were similar to those of England, Australia, Lithuania, Italy, Kazakhstan, New Zealand and Sweden.

"These results should both provide a wake-up call of the need to raise student achievement in our nation's most-populated state and a road map for boosting learning," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a prepared statement. "Unlike a number of demographically diverse U.S. states ... California's schools are not yet among the world's top-performing education systems." But, he added, he believes the state will improve.

Broken down by ethnicity, California Asians scored 555, which would have placed them sixth among countries and states tests; Latinos scored 470.

Amid the relatively poor showing, there were spots of achievement. Five percent of the state's eighth-graders reached or exceeded the "advanced" level, set at 625, compared with the international median of only 3 percent of students tested.

In science, California eighth-graders scored 499, just barely below the international average of 500. The state's eighth-graders outscored peers in 24 places, and scored below 26 others. Scores were similar in Alabama, Italy, Kazakhstan, Norway and Ukraine.

In both exams, East Asian countries and Russia scored at the top.

Only nine U.S. states were sampled separately from the nation on the eighth-grade tests, part of the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study.

Among those states that did participate separately in eighth-grade math, four -- Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina and Indiana -- scored above the U.S. average, which was above the international average.

In eighth-grade science, the United States scored 525, well above the international average.

The TIMES survey and another one, the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study, also assessed fourth-grade reading, math and science. California, however, was not tested separately on those tests.

In fourth-grade reading, the United States scored higher than the international average and also improved over 2006, the last time that test was administered.

Students in an eighth-grade science class in Tracy, Calif., 2008.
Students in an eighth-grade science class in Tracy, Calif., 2008. ((Jim Stevens/Tri-Valley Herald))

In fourth-grade science, U.S. scores changed little since 2007, the last time the math and science test was given.

Among the results of those exams:

Fourth-grade reading: Florida was among the top five education systems, along with Hong Kong, Russia, Finland and Singapore.

Fourth-grade math: North Carolina placed seventh, after Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taipei, Japan and Northern Ireland.

Fourth-grade science: The United States placed seventh, on par with three other education systems and below Korea, Singapore, Finland, Japan, Russia and Taipei.

The eighth-grade tests were based on a sampling of 11,864 students in 501 schools in the United States. The California results were taken from a sample of 2,898 students in 82 schools.

Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.