U.S. Students at Bottom in International Math Study, Data Show

By Robert Rothman & Alina Tugend — July 10, 2019 3 min read


In its “What Works” booklet, the Education Department this month published previously unavailable data from an international study of mathematics indicating that American students lag behind those of most other industrialized nations in math skills.

The data show results from the Second International Mathematics Study, a 20-nation survey conducted in 1981-82 of 8th- and 12th-grade mathematics students.

Although preliminary reports of the study were released in 1984, the Education Department report, for the first time, showed how the performance of American students compared with those of students from other nations. (See Education Week, May 16, 1984.)

Kenneth J . Travers, professor of mathematics education at the University of Illinois and chairman of the group that conducted the American component of the study, last week was unavailable for comment on the new international comparisons.

Although 20 nations participated in the study, “What Works” left out results from most of the developing nations, in part because the department “had doubts about the data,” according to Larry Suter, a demographer for the department’s Center for Statistics.

Test Results

According to the tables in “What Works,” U.S. 8th graders received an average score of 48 percent, ranking 12th among 14 industrialized nations. Japan, with an average score of 62 percent, ranked first.

For 12th graders, the report showed that U.S. students received an average score of 52 percent in algebra and calculus, ranking 12th among 12 industrialized nations. Japanese students again ranked first, with an average score of 66 percent.

Other countries ranking ahead of the United States in 8th-grade scores included: the Netherlands, France, Belgium (Flemish- and French-speaking pupils were tested separately), Hungary, Canada (the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario were tested separately), Scotland, England and Wales, and Finland.

New Zealand and Sweden ranked below the United States on the basis of the student scores.

France and the Netherlands are not included in the department’s graph of 12th-grade scores. Students from all of the other industrialized nations ranked above the American 12th graders.

The data came from a sample of 6,648 students tested in 280 American classrooms in 1981-82. The first international mathematics study was conducted in 1964.

‘Worst-Case Scenario’

Joseph Crosswhite, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, called the Education Department’s charts a “worst-case-scenario kind of way” to present the data. He noted, for example, that they omitted figures from several nations, such as Swaziland, Nigeria, and Thailand, that ranked below the United States.

However, he added, “It’s not inaccurate. It is a perfectly legitimate way of reporting the data. It’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

But Mr. Suter said the data are realistic. “Do we really want to say we are only better than Swaziland?” he asked.

Release Delayed

Mr. Suter denied that political considerations were a factor in the department’s delayed release of the data, saying the study had been held up by “purists” within the department who did not consider it statistically sound.

Mr. Suter said, however, that although the quality of the data is lower than that in other studies, it was important for the information to be released because no other similar data exist.

“It’s unique data,” he said. “If there’s any bias at all, it’s in testing smarter kids rather than dumber kids.”

Mr. Suter also attributed the delay, in part, to an agreement among all nations participating in the study that no country would release the data for another country. At an international meeting last August, that ban was lifted, effective last Nov. 1.

Scores ‘Appalling’

Mr. Suter said the department agreed to include the two graphs in “What Works” because the poor showing of the United States in the international mathematics testing “seemed to make the case that the whole report was trying to make.”

Herbert Walberg, a professor at the University of Illinois and one of the advocates for including the graphs in “What Works,” said that it is “immensely important to recognize that the scores came from 1981-82 and they have gotten a little better,”

Nonetheless, he called the results “appalling” and an indication that “we have a long way to go to bring our students up to par with other developed nations.”

Similarly, Mr. Crosswhite said, “It is important for the public to know that we are in this condition.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 1986 edition of Education Week


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