Poor results were achieved despite a number of advantages enjoyed by Scottish schools and this is certain to heighten expectations of the Inspectorate's study into mathematics, ordered after the Assessment of Achievement Programme and the Inspectorate's own Standards and Quality report revealed troubling weaknesses in the subject.
The maths study, which will consider what lessons can be learnt from other countries, is due to be published around Easter.
Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, blamed a failure by education authorities fully to implement the 5-14 programme in secondary schools for what the Scottish Office admits is a poor performance among 13-year-olds in the Third International Maths and Science Study. Mr Robertson highlights a reluctance to test pupils.
The results, published simultaneously on Wednesday in the 45 countries that took part, showed that Scotland's maths ranking was 26 out of 39 countries in the equivalent of the first year of secondary education and 28 out of 41 in the second year.
In science, Scotland was placed 25 out of 38 countries in S1 and 25 out of 40 in S2. While there was a "quite large gain" in both subjects between S1 and S2, the Scottish Office reports "some deterioration" since the last study in 1991.
The bitterest pill for Scottish schools is that England is doing significantly better in science and is level with Scotland in maths. Yet there was more actual teaching of maths (218 minutes a week) than in most countries.
Scottish schools undertook more remedial maths and more enrichment for the ablest pupils, according to the report.
Motivational factors also worked in Scotland's favour with three-quarters of pupils saying they liked maths while 80 per cent enjoyed science, which was above average. Ninety per cent of pupils realised the importance of doing well in maths as did 60 per cent in science.
But there were also clues as to why Scottish schools may be slipping. Calculators and computers are much more commonly used for maths in Scotland, although their use in science is about average; less homework is set than in almost all other countries; pupils are left to their own devices with textbooks or worksheets more often than anywhere else; pupils said teachers were slower to help them with problems; and a third of maths teachers said they had to cope with too wide an ability range which was "considerably higher" than in other countries.
Although the Education Minister's recipe for success is more testing and more setting, the consensus among primary heads and principal teachers convened to discuss the problems revealed in the AAP maths report (TESS, June 28) was simple: teachers are being asked to cover too much ground leaving no opportunity for in-depth study or consolidation of learning.
The international maths and science study involved around 5,800 pupils in 128 Scottish secondary schools. It also assessed the attainment of nine-year-olds in P4 and P5 but these results will not be published until next year.