U.S. lags in high-level math achievement

The U.S. isn’t a high achiever in math education, conclude Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessmann in Education Next.

No fewer than 30 of the 56 other countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test, including most of the world’s industrialized nations, had a larger percentage of students who scored at the international equivalent of the advanced level on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests.

Only 6 percent of U.S. students scored at the advanced level on the PISA 2006 math exam, compared to 28 percent of Taiwanese students and at least 20 percent of students in Hong Kong, Korea, and Finland.  Race and poverty don’t explain it: Eight percent of white students in the U.S. and 10.3 of those with a college-graduate parent achieve at the advanced level.

Twelve other countries had more than twice the percentage of advanced students as the United States: in order of math excellence, they are Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada, Macao-China, Australia, Germany, and Austria.

The remaining countries that educate a greater proportion of their students to a high level are Slovenia, Denmark, Iceland, France, Estonia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, the Slovak Republic, Luxembourg, Hungary, Poland, Norway, Ireland and Lithuania.

The U.S. performs at the same level as Spain and Italy and outperforms Portugal, Greece, Turkey, and Mexico.

Massachusetts, with over 11 percent of its students at the advanced level, does better than any other state, reaching the level of Germany and France. Minnesota, with more than 10 percent of its students at the advanced level, is up there with Slovenia and Denmark.

The lowest-ranking states — West Virginia, New Mexico, and Mississippi — lag Serbia and Uruguay but edge out Romania, Brazil, and Kyrgyzstan.

In Your Child Left Behind in The Atlantic, Amanda Ripley looks at the study, noting that the U.S. spends more per student on K-12 education than all but three other countries — Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway.

She also reports that a “2010 study of teacher-prep programs in 16 countries found a striking correlation between how well students did on international exams and how their future teachers performed on a math test.”

Our future middle-school math teachers knew about as much math as their peers in Thailand and Oman — and nowhere near what future teachers in Taiwan and Singapore knew. Moreover, the results showed dramatic variation depending on the teacher-training program.

Nearly all U.S. teens say it’s important to “be good at math and science,” and 85 percent are confident about their own math and science abilities, an Intel survey finds. They’re much more realistic about their country’s performance. Only 10 percent say the U.S. is leading the world in math and science learning: 67 percent say Japan or China is the top country.

Teens say the U.S. lags in math and science because Americans don’t work hard enough and lack discipline.  Only a third blame inadequate funding or a failure to emphasize math and science.

Update:  Half of U.S. graduate students in mathematics can’t work for the National Security Agency because they’re not U.S. citizens, reports Business Week.

Math is more important than ever at the NSA. Chances are, the world’s growing rivers of data contain terrorist secrets, and it’s up to the agency’s math teams to find them.

. . . The agency is even co-sponsoring math and programming contests run by TopCoder, a Connecticut company whose matches attract geeks from all over the world.

But only two of 70 TopCoder finalists were U.S. citizens in 2009. Twenty came from China and 10 from Russia. Eastern Europeans also did well. The winner of the algorithm competition was an 18-year-old student from China, Bin Jin, who calls himself “crazyb0y.”

Via Concernedabouteducation’s posterous.

Check out Hechinger’s Go Deep on math for more on why so many U.S. students aren’t mastering math.

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  1. Teens say the U.S. lags in math and science because Americans don’t work hard enough and lack discipline. Only a third blame inadequate funding or a failure to emphasize math and science.

    Out of the mouths of babes….

    Yep, I agree with that.

  2. Lack of effort and discipline are certainly huge factors, especially among the lower performers, but inadequate curriculum and instructional methods are also major issues. Especially at the ES-MS levels, most teachers do not have sufficient math expertise themselves, let alone the ability to teach it well, and many of the commonly used curriculums (“trust the spiral”) are inherently flawed. Also, the insistence on heterogeneous classes and the focus on the “achievement gap” means that the most able kids are not allowed to work to their potential.

  3. A significant portion of both educators and the public has very negative views of resources provided to the top students, as evidenced by some of the comments about a recent Washington Post article about the math-science magnet program at Thomas Jefferson HS; “anyone should be allowed to attend (admission is based on test scores),

    it’s elitist and should be closed” etc. I remember a popular poster from my college days in the 60s; “it’s hard to soar like an eagle if you’re surrounded by turkeys,” with the appropriate graphic.

  4. The PISA test is not a great assessment and this kind of comparison doesn’t serve much purpose. If colleges and recruiters say we lag, it’s more valid. The value of standardized tests on real world achievement is dubious at best.

  5. This may be a really stupid question, but how do they choose which students will take the test? European countries have a more structured and leveled educational system. By the time their students are 14 they’ve skimed off the “worker bees” and placed them in vocational programs. Our more comprehensive system in the U.S. allows even poor students to continue on a “college” track until graducation. I’m simply wondering which population of students their using for testing: the pre-selected “academic” track in Europe and the comprehensive take all comers in America?

  6. Good question, Stacy in NJ. Asking which students take the test in other countries is certainly a valid concern.

  7. j.d. salinger says:

    The point of the study that Peterson and Hanushek did was to address the concern about which students take the test in other countries. They compared the scores of the highest performing students in the US with those in other countries. In that way, the comparison was between equivalent cohorts.