Behind the curve

American high school students don’t understand math concepts as well as students in most other developed countries, according to PISA (Program for International Student Assessment), an international survey. The U.S. ranks 24th out of 29 countries, reports the Washington Post.

Students from Finland and South Korea scored best in the survey, which measured the ability of 15-year-olds to solve real-life math problems.

. . . A previous study, released three years ago, showed that U.S. students were in the middle of the pack when it came to reading but lagged in math. Since then, the United States has fallen behind countries such as Poland, Hungary and Spain by some measures of math proficiency.

U.S. students are scoring better on the math section of the National Assessment of Education Progress, a federal survey. But the test is “far too easy,” says Tom Loveless of the Brookings Institution.

“We have downplayed arithmetic,” Loveless said. “By and large, American students don’t know how to work with fractions very well and don’t know how to work with decimals. This handicaps their performance internationally.”

A more detailed international survey of math and science skills will be released next week. U.S. students are expected to do well in elementary school, then fade.

Update: PISA measures students’ ability to apply math skills to practical problems, the Christian Science Monitor points out. While whites and Asian-Americans score much better than black and Hispanics, “even the highest US achievers in mathematics literacy and problem solving were outperformed by their peers in industrialized nations.”

About Joanne


  1. ariztophanes says:

    Yeah, but they FEEL better about it 😛

  2. As a high school math teacher, I felt that I ought to say something…

    1. I do agree that too many math curricula for the middle grades are based on ideas that have not been tested. Our state testing here in Texas proves it – elementary scores in math are very high, and they begin a downward spiral in the middle grades. I have kids in my low level classes who have no idea how to add positive and negative numbers, let alone reason out a math problem! Something is happening in middle school where we are losing a bunch of our kids, and I think bad curriculum has a lot to do with it.

    2. I would also like to see a list of those countries who educate ALL of their children up through high school and see how they rank against the US. Many people reading this report fail to realize that many countries weed out their weaker students around the 8th grade and send them off to trade school, keeping those kids out of the high school program and therefore out of the testing statistics. Here our philosophy is to educate all of the kids, and we must take the good with the not-so-good students. This in itself will lower our overall average.

    3. The sample questions in the report are good, thought-provoking questions, not just number crunching questions. I would like to see the whole test, but what I see looks like a fair assessment.

    Overall, I think our kids do think more highly of themselves than they should when it comes to math, and we as educators need to stop telling our kids to feel good about their math abilities and stick with curriculum that we know works. Our children’s education cannot be sacrificed on the altar of new and untested ideas. It’s just not worth it.

    Mansfield High School
    Mansfield, TX

  3. These are 15 year old kids (10th grade) and I find very little math in these questions. This test does not evaluate age-appropriate math-type problem solving skills – algebra, geometry, and variable-based problem solving using known formulas like distance = rate * time. If you think this test says anything about how well schools prepare students for careers in math, science, and engineering, you are mistaken. Even if you do well on this test, that is no guarantee that you are good in math. One question involved picking out a time that three kids could go see a movie. Another involved adding single-digit numbers on dice. These are classic fuzzy math problems that involve as little formal math skills and knowledge as possible. They may test common sense, but that is about it.

    The test does tell us something, and that something is not good and is not math.

  4. I haven’t seen the entire test; where did you find it? However, based on the couple of questions that I did see, I don’t think that it’s fair to call these questions “fuzzy math”. They are certainly elementary, but they are reasonable examples of simple applications of elementary mathematics.

    Certainly the test tells us things that aren’t good, and it’s not good about math education. It’s like the high school exit exams that I’ve seen. The tests are far too easy for 4th grade daughter, but the fact that lots of kids who aren’t mentally deficient fail the tests tell me a lot of things I’d rather not know.

    I’m sure that any exam that actually challenged a kid of that age that will grow up the be a good engineer or physicist would be absurdly difficult for most kids, and so wouldn’t tell us anything other than that most people don’t know any math and even fewer know how to apply it, and we know that already. It’s what gives me job security…

  5. Steve LaBonne says:

    Jill, where do you get your information? Please list the countries included in this comparison, and which outperformed the US, where you believe that happens and is the explanation for the results.

  6. Even if you do well on this test, that is no guarantee that you are good in math.

    There were two math-related tests. The problem-solving test (which you don’t think much of) and a mathematics literacy test. The U.S. students were below-average in both measures.

  7. Jill,
    Your second comment about testing ALL high schoolers suggests you’re unaware of the TMSS and Stevenson studies. In the TMSS studies, they sampled 4th and 8th graders specifically because none of the countries involved in the studies culled students before 8th grade. Stevenson sampled 5th graders in both of his studies.

    Though they were based on younger students and they weren’t subsampling the population, both the TMSS and Stevenson studies found similar results to this study. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that overseas High Schoolers outperform American High Schoolers if other studies show a gap by 4th and 8th grades.

    The Stevenson studies were published in Science (more info here.) The TMSS studies are archived here.

  8. Christopher says:

    Regarding your second comment – maybe some countries follow different practices, but I was under the impression that most trades now required good maths aptititude, with at least a Year 10 pass. So trade school wouldn’t be the best place to send those kids who couldn’t handle junior high school level maths.


  1. chris correa says:

    PISA 2003: Practice Makes Imperfect?

    Some nations, including the United States, performed surprisingly poorly on the problem-solving assessment. Why? Here’s one idea…