The survey also highlighted the connection between math skills and gender and found that men were better at lengthy math tests than women, who in turn were better in problem solving.
Finnish students had the highest percentage of proficiency in mathematics, the focus of this year's study. In the organization's last survey in 2000, Finland came out on top for reading assessment.
South Korea, Canada, the Netherlands and Japan followed in the math rankings this year.
The OECD report surveyed more than a quarter-million 15-year-old students in 41 countries. The examinations centered on a two-hour math test, but students were also tested on problem solving, science and reading comprehension.
The United States ranked 24th on the list, and Washington received a low score for the way it spends education money, said Andreas Schleicher, the report's coordinator.
"They spend a lot on education, but obviously not with a very good return on their investment," Schleicher said.
Directly comparing a country's score to the last round of exams is difficult because the tests focus on different subject matters. But in the last generation, South Korea has vaulted from the bottom of the group of industrial countries to the No. 2 spot.
Also in the space of a generation, the U.S. and Germany moved from the top of the list to the middle, Schleicher said.
Germany came in 17th in the 2004 survey.
The report also found that boys outperformed girls in the math exam: they were over-represented in the top tier of results, but not underrepresented in the lowest group, Schleicher said.
Combined with girls' strong performance in the problem-solving portion of the exam, the results suggested girls were not less skilled, but do not respond well to the way schools traditionally teach math, he said.
"It is not the cognitive process underlying mathematics that gives boys an advantage, but the context in which mathematics appear in school," the report said.
Schleicher called the results "an important finding for educational policy."
Britain was not included in the report because of insufficient data.
By Allecia Vermillion