When it comes to managing money, the nation's 15-year-olds can hold their own against the world, but just barely.
A new, first-of-its-kind financial literacy study conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment -- the group that annually tells us how lackluster American teens are when it comes to reading, math and science -- was released last week. It shows that U.S. teens scored statistically in the middle of the pack on a two-hour, paper-and-pencil test that looked at how well they know, understand and can use financial concepts.
The test was given to a representative sample of about 29,000 students in 18 countries and regions. Shanghai, China, came in first, by a wide margin. Not only did China's 15-year-olds have the highest average score on the test -- 603 compared to the U.S.'s 495 -- but a whopping 43 percent of Chinese students scored in the top performing level, compared to 9 percent of U.S. students. In the top level, students can not only balance checkbooks and read a bank statement, they can also understand the implications of income tax brackets.
One "easy" question from the test showed students an invoice for a store purchase and asked why it was sent. The correct answer was that it was a bill that had to be paid.
A "harder" question asked students about refinancing a loan with a lower interest rate. If they thought it was a good idea, they had to say why.
Financial literacy is considered important, since young people are increasingly making decisions about purchases and soon will have to decide if going to college is worth the amount of debt they will be taking on.
Other countries that scored above the international average include Australia, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, New Zealand and Poland. Columbia came in dead last with a score of 378.
The PISA results also show that:
Across the world, boys tended to score higher than girls.
While 90 percent of 15-year-olds in Slovenia and New Zealand have bank accounts, only 51 percent of students in the U.S. do.
U.S. teens are far more astute when it comes to online shopping, with more than 70 percent saying they have made online payments, placing them fourth among participating nations.
Locally, Darien's interim superintendent of schools, Lynne Pierson, said many school districts are aware of the importance of financial literacy and have incorporated lessons into the curriculum.
One of the more popular classes is the investment and personal finance class, Dunn said.
The course is designed to "help students prepare to make decisions they will face, both as students and as adults functioning in a dynamic global economy," according to the course description. "It is the study of limited resources trying to satisfy unlimited wants.
The course stresses the importance of preparing for the future by starting a financial plan now. A broad number of topics educate the student on how to be a wise consumer, with stress on life and health insurance. Other important topics will include the power and methods of saving, as well as investing in a variety of ways such as stocks, bonds and real estate. A virtual stock market game simulation gives students a hands-on look at what it's like to invest in real companies."
There is also a pre-law class that teaches students legal principles centered around personal and business finances.
"In addition to these course offerings, we have embedded a lesson in financial literacy as part of the advisory program for our seniors through our homeroom meetings," Dunn said in an email. "The lesson explores personal finance with a focus on the use of credit cards and the risks associated with accumulating debt."
There appears to be a correlation between socio-economic background and financial literacy.
Kids who have bank accounts know more about money than kids who don't. Another strong correlation can be drawn between perseverance and financial literacy. Kids who don't give up easily tended to score better on the test than kids who do.
But "it is not a causal link," Davidson said in a Web conference with reporters.
The test will be given again in 2015, this time via computer.
Staff Writer Megan Spicer contributed to this report.