Top-Achieving Nations Beat U.S. States in Math and Science

By Sean Cavanagh — November 13, 2007 4 min read
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Students in the highest-performing U.S. states rank well below their peers in the world’s top-achieving countries in mathematics and science skill, according to a new study that judges American youths on an international scale.

The study, published Nov. 14 by the American Institutes for Research, compares the performance of 8th graders in individual American states not against each other, but against students in top-performing foreign nations, such as Japan and South Korea, as well as against children in recent lower-scoring ones, such as Bulgaria, Jordan, and Romania.

The analysis found that, on the one hand, most American states are performing as well as, or better than, most foreign nations in the study in math and science.

But it also concludes that even students in states such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, and North Dakota, which have scored well on recent U.S. exams, do not match students in top-performing foreign countries.

The study’s comparison uses a statistical model to link U.S. students’ science results from 2005 and math scores from 2007 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress with the country-by-country results on the 2003 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, a prominent international exam known as TIMSS.

Gary W. Phillips, a chief scientist at the Washington-based AIR, took the results of two separate tests and came up with a common method for judging states and nations. His study projects NAEP achievement levels—specifically, the percentage of students scoring at or above the “proficient” level—on the TIMSS scale.

The analysis allows states to “monitor progress toward improved science and mathematics achievement while seeing how they stack up within an international context,” the report says. “This strategy is analogous to converting world currencies to dollars as an external benchmark for tracking local economic progress.”

Releases of NAEP test scores are closely scrutinized by state leaders, who typically greet them with varying degrees of pride or dismay, depending on whether their students scores rise or fall and on how well they fare relative to other states. Mr. Phillips, in an interview with reporters, said he hoped state officials would be similarly motivated by his state-to-nation comparisons, at a time when many U.S. education and business leaders fret about students’ ability to compete in the future, global economy.

‘Do What We Do Better’

The study compares most of the 50 American states and the District of Columbia with foreign nations in both math and science. A few states are not ranked in science, because they did not take part in the 2005 NAEP in science, a subject in which participation is voluntary.

One of the states that fare well in the study is Massachusetts, which in 8th grade math is shown to rank ahead, by a statistically significant margin, of all but four countries: Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan. The state ranks at a statistically similar level to Japan, and its performance is better than the 41 remaining nations in that category.

By contrast, 17 nations, including Australia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Russia, top Alabama’s performance in 8th grade math in the study. Ten countries perform at levels similar to Alabama’s showing, and 19 nations rank below the state, including Botswana, Chile, Egypt, and Norway.

Mr. Phillips called the findings “a mixed bag,” though he added that “the bad news kind of trumps the good news.” The results demonstrate the need for U.S. policymakers to focus on improving the math and science skills of students, particularly in early grades, he said. Doing so, he argued, will encourage more students to pursue math- and science-related careers, and produce a public that is capable of dealing with daunting challenges facing the United States, and the world, in science, health, and other areas.

“These are complicated problems,” Mr. Phillips said, mentioning climate change and disease prevention as among the concerns. “The solution to them requires that we have a literate citizen-public.”

Vivek Wadhwa, an adjunct professor in the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, agreed with the report’s conclusions about the importance for all countries, including the United States, of investing in education. But he also said that many of the countries in the TIMSS study have much smaller populations than the United States, and do less to nurture creative thinking among students across many subjects.

Mr. Wadhwa, now on a fellowship at Harvard University, co-wrote a study last year that argued that fears about China and India producing more engineers than the United States are exaggerated. (“Study: U.S.-Asian Engineering Gap Overstated,” January 4, 2006.)

“If you compare U.S. education on a variety of factors, the picture looks much different,” Mr. Wadhwa said in an e-mail. “Our children are more inquisitive, innovative, and broad-minded” than those from many foreign countries, he added.

“The fact is we have many advantages,” Mr. Wadhwa wrote. “We don’t want our children to be subjected to the rote learning that is common in countries like China and India. We want to do what we do better.”

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