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In financial literacy, U.S. teens score below Latvia

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USA TODAY- The United States is in the middle of the pack for financial literacy among 15-year-old students, according to a recent international study released Wednesday.

Shanghai, China's financial hub, was the leader in financial literacy, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which surveyed 29,000 students in 18 countries and economies.

The Flemish Community of Belgium wasn't far behind Shanghai, and Estonia rounded out the top three. The United States fell in at No. 9 with an average score of 492 — eight points behind the overall average.

The Slovak Republic, Italy and Colombia found themselves in the bottom three once the results of the two-hour paper test were revealed.

Questions ranged from simple — covering basic financial literacy skills, such as recognizing the purpose of an invoice or comparing price per unit — to complex. The complex questions included scenarios such as reviewing and choosing the better of two loan proposals.

Only 10% of students across participating OECD countries and economies were able to tackle the hardest financial literacy tasks, according to the report.

Shanghai's strong performance can be attributed to an education system that focuses on intervention mechanisms to keep students from falling behind, says Michael Davidson, head of schools for OECD.

Davidson says that unlike the United States, social background and performance in financial literacy are not correlated in Shanghai — in other words, financial status has little to no impact on literacy. Only 50% of Shanghai students are in schools that offer a financial education program. Davidson says this means students are obtaining those skills in other ways, through other classes and education.

The U.S. on the other hand has 70% of its students enrolled in schools with financial education programs, yet it falls far behind Shanghai in financial literacy among students. The United States, Davidson says, has the strongest correlation between social background and financial literacy, with those from advantaged backgrounds scoring higher in the assessment.

"The U.S. has about the average number of top-performing students, but at the other end of the spectrum there is a higher percentage of students who are performing below the baseline," Davidson says.

He says the difference is not that there is more social diversity in the U.S. population, but that systems such as the one in Shanghai (a population with roughly the same socio-economic diversity as the U.S.) are designed to mitigate against the correlation between social background and education levels.

Difficulty in financial literacy is consistent in adulthood, according to the 2013 Consumer Financial Literacy Survey from Harris Interactive. More than 75% of U.S. adults agree they could benefit from additional advice and answers to everyday financial questions from a professional, according to the survey.

Financial literacy among U.S. adults is improving: Only 40% of adults surveyed in 2012 gave themselves a grade of C, D or F on their knowledge of personal finance — down from 65% in 2010. This could, in part, be related to the 2003 establishment of the U.S. Financial Literacy and Education Commission, which was tasked to develop a national financial education website — MyMoney.gov — and a national strategy on financial education.

Davidson says a high correlation between math and reading scores and financial literacy suggests those countries with higher general literacy rates are likely to do better in understanding finance. And while he says there is a gender gap in financial literacy among adults, it's all but non-existent among the 15-year-old population surveyed by OECD.

The final notable finding, Davidson says, was a strong relationship between perseverance and financial literacy. Students who participated in the survey were asked if they would give up in the face of a difficult financial problem or try to work through it. Those who said they'd give up scored lower.

"That relationship is strongest in the United States out of all countries," Davidson says.

Averages by country in the financial literacy survey:

1. Shanghai-China: 603

2. Flemish Community (Belgium): 541

3: Estonia: 529

4. Australia: 526

5. New Zealand: 520

6. Czech Republic: 513

7. Poland: 510

Average score: 500

8. Latvia: 501

9. United States: 492

10. Russian Federation: 486

11. France: 486

12. Slovenia: 485

13. Spain: 484

14. Croatia: 480

15. Israel: 476

16. Slovak Republic: 470

17. Italy: 466

18. Colombia: 379

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