U.S. Students’ Achievement Is Mediocre in International Study

Published February 1, 2008

According to a new report comparing academic achievement for the 50 U.S. states with international scores, students in even the highest-achieving states are mediocre when compared with the rest of the developed world.

No international academic assessment produces scores for each of the 50 states, making direct comparisons between states and foreign countries using a single test impossible. But a report from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) gets around the problem by comparing different tests.

Through “statistical linking,” AIR puts states’ eighth-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) science and mathematics scores on a common scale with the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

The findings in AIR’s “Chance Favors the Prepared Mind: Mathematics and Science Indicators for Comparing States and Nations,” released in November, are at best a mixed bag for the United States.

Math and Science

The “good news,” according to the report, is that “most states are performing as well as or better than most foreign countries.”

And the bad news?

“The highest-achieving states … are still significantly below the highest-achieving countries.”

Nationally, the United States had a significantly smaller percentage of students score “proficient” in mathematics on the combined scale than did six, primarily Asian, countries, including Japan and Singapore.

Approximately the same percentage of students hit proficiency in math as in eight European or English-speaking nations, including Australia, Hungary, and the Netherlands, while American students performed significantly better in math than those in 31 nations from all over the globe, including Botswana, Chile, and England.

In science, five Asian countries, plus England, Estonia, and Hungary, had significantly larger percentages of students score at proficient levels than the United States.

Ten primarily European and English-speaking countries performed similarly to the United States, and 25 countries performed significantly worse than the United States.

Poor States, Countries

State results showed considerable variation. Massachusetts, which typically finishes near the top of state rankings, came in sixth among the 46 ranked countries and territories–including the United States overall–in mathematics, with 51 percent of its students hitting proficiency. It placed seventh in science with 41 percent of students scoring proficient.

On the opposite end, Mississippi finished in the bottom half in both math and science, with only 14 percent of its students proficient in each subject, placing it among nations such as Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Jordan.

“When we look at how well our students are doing, from an international point of view, we’re not doing that well,” said Gary W. Phillips, the report’s author and former acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.

Phillips was especially concerned about U.S. students’ struggles with science and mathematics because “most of the major problems we face are math and science problems,” he said.

Changing the System

Dan Lips, an education analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington, DC think tank, wasn’t surprised by the study’s results.

“While this report includes some new findings in international comparisons, it generally confirms what we already knew–that many students in other countries are outperforming American students,” Lips said.

Lips said the study’s findings are a strong sign that states need to change how they deliver education.

“In truth, the key to improving American students’ competitiveness is to increase competition in our education system by allowing widespread school choice and encouraging innovation,” Lips said.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom in Washington, DC.

For more information …

“Chance Favors the Prepared Mind: Mathematics and Science Indicators for Comparing States and Nations,” by Dr. Gary W. Phillips, American Institutes for Research, November 14, 2007: http://www.heartland.org/article.cfm?articleId=22597