Decomposition is a large term in the global carbon budget, but models of the earth system that simulate carbon cycle-climate feedbacks are largely untested with respect to litter decomposition. We tested the litter decomposition parameterization of the community land model version 4 (CLM4), the terrestrial component of the community earth system model, with data from the long-term intersite decomposition experiment team (LIDET). The LIDET dataset is a 10-year study of litter decomposition at multiple sites across North America and Central America. We performed 10-year litter decomposition simulations comparable with LIDET for 9 litter types and 20 sites in tundra, grassland, and boreal, conifer, deciduous, and tropical forest biomes using the LIDET-provided climatic decomposition index to constrain temperature and moisture effects on decomposition. We performed additional simulations with DAYCENT, a version of the CENTURY model, to ask how well an established ecosystem model matches the observations. The results show large discrepancy between the laboratory microcosm studies used to parameterize the CLM4 litter decomposition and the LIDET field study. Simulated carbon loss is more rapid than the observations across all sites, and nitrogen immobilization is biased high. Closer agreement with the observations requires much lower decomposition rates, obtained with the assumption that soil mineral nitrogen severely limits decomposition. DAYCENT better replicates the observations, for both carbon mass remaining and nitrogen, independent of nitrogen limitation. CLM4 has low soil carbon in global earth system simulations. These results suggest that this bias arises, in part, from too rapid litter decomposition. More broadly, the terrestrial biogeochemistry of earth system models must be critically tested with observations, and the consequences of particular model choices must be documented. Long-term litter decomposition experiments such as LIDET provide a real-world process-oriented benchmark to evaluate models.