U.S. Students Flunk Math Again

Published February 1, 2005
PISA 2003 Mean Scores in Mathematics
OECD Countries
Finland 544
Korea 542
Netherlands 538
Japan 534
Canada 532
Belgium 529
Switzerland 527
Australia 524
New Zealand 523
Czech Republic 516
Iceland 515
Denmark 514
France 511
Sweden 509
Austria 506
Germany 503
Ireland 503
Slovak Republic 498
Norway 495
Luxembourg 493
Poland 490
Hungary 490
Spain 485
United States 483
Portugal 466
Italy 466
Greece 445
Turkey 423
Mexico 385
Source: OECD, Learning for Tommorrow’s World: First Results from PISA 2003

On December 7, 2004, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released initial results of the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which tested 250,000 students in 41 countries.

The PISA 2003 survey was focused on mathematics, but it also examined the students’ performance in problem solving, science, reading, and student approaches to school and attitudes toward learning. More specifically, the PISA tested “real world” math skills and whether students could apply math concepts outside the classroom.

A statistically representative sample of 15-year-olds from each country participated in the study. Fifteen-year-olds were tested to ensure different nations would have comparable student populations, since schooling is compulsory for all 15-year-olds in each of the countries tested.

Poor Understanding of Concepts

The study found that high school students in the United States have a poorer understanding of basic math concepts than their counterparts in most other leading industrialized nations.

The PISA study ranked the United States 24th out of 29 countries in the OECD in mathematics literacy and problem solving. Students from Finland and South Korea had the highest scores. Using the OECD’s adjusted average score of 500 points, the United States scored 483–61 points behind top-scoring Finland and 51 points behind Japan. The United States was outperformed by almost every developed nation, with only Mexico and Portugal scoring lower.

Twenty-five percent of American students performed at or below the lowest possible level of competence, meaning they are unable to perform the simplest calculations.

The PISA results also confirmed the large achievement gap between white and minority students in the United States. White students performed above the OECD average in mathematics literacy and problem-solving, while Black and Hispanic students performed below the OECD average.

Even when only the top students in each nation are considered, the U.S. falls short. On average, about 4 percent of 15-year-olds in all nations who took the test scored at level six of a six-point scale, while in the United States only 2 percent scored at level six.

Evident Need for Reform

The 2003 PISA results also demonstrated that students in the countries that spent more on education did not necessarily do better than those that spent less. Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Japan, Korea, and the Netherlands spent less per student than the United States but did relatively well, while the United States spent much more but was below the OECD average on the PISA exam. For example, spending per student between the ages of six and 15 years of age in the Czech Republic is roughly one-third, and in Korea roughly one-half, of spending levels in the United States, but the Czech Republic and Korea are in the top 10 performers on the PISA exam.

Many U.S. education policy analysts say the PISA test results point to the crucial need for high school education reform in the United States. U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Eugene Hickock, for example, used the report to promote President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind agenda, which calls for more state testing and tougher school accountability in the high school grades.

Many commentators also noted the potential economic impact of Americans’ poor math skills. Eric Hanushek, a Stanford University economist, told the Wall Street Journal, “trailing other OECD countries on education measures may reduce U.S. economic growth by as much as a half percentage point a year. That drag will become increasingly apparent as other countries dismantle regulatory obstacles and alter tax laws that put them at a disadvantage.”

Brian Carpenter, of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, noted in his December 9, 2004 Policy Brief on the PISA results that when the United States’ immigration program, which allows foreign guest workers to enter the United States, opened its October 1 recruiting session, companies such as Microsoft immediately filled a total of 65,000 technical jobs–the maximum allowed by the law.

The PISA results also gave some policymakers cause to argue for differential pay for teachers to attract more high-quality math instructors at the secondary level. As Louis V. Gerstner Jr., founder of The Teaching Commission, explained in the December 13, 2004 Christian Science Monitor:

“The heart of the problem is the arcane way we recruit and prepare teachers, along with the lockstep single salary schedule, which says a teacher equals a teacher equals a teacher, no matter how desperately society may need a certain skill set and no matter how well a teacher performs in the classroom.”

Similarly, University of Idaho economist John Wenders asked in his December 8 “Economic Time Bomb” email analysis of the PISA test results, “Will someone again explain to me why we should pay math and P.E. teachers the same?”

Lisa Snell ([email protected]) is education director of the Reason Foundation.

For more information …

The complete OECD report, Learning for Tommorrow’s World: First Results from PISA 2003, can be found online at http://www.pisa.oecd.org/document/55/0,2340,en_32252351_32236173_33917303_1_1_1_1,00.html.