Tests show U.S. math skills behind curve

American scores were worse than those of 20 other countries.
Tuesday, December 7, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 11:19 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 8, 2008

WASHINGTON — Fifteen-year-olds in the United States don’t have the math skills to match up to peers in other industrialized nations, test scores released Monday show.

The latest international comparison also underscores an achievement gap in America: White U.S. students scored above the average, while blacks and Hispanics scored below it.

Overall, U.S. students scored below the international average in total math literacy and in every specific area tested, including geometry, algebra, statistics and computation.

Known as the Program for International Student Assessment, the test measures math, reading and science literacy among 15-year-olds every three years. This time, the main focus was math.

The test is not a measure of grade-level curriculum but rather a cumulative gauge of skills learned inside and outside school — and how well students apply them to real-life problems. It also gives the United States an external reality check about how it is doing.

Among 29 industrialized countries, the United States scored below 20 nations and above five in math. The U.S. performance was about the same as that of Poland, Hungary and Spain.

When compared with all 39 nations that produced scores, the United States was below 23 countries, above 11 and about the same as four others, with Latvia joining the middle group.

“If we want to be competitive, we have some mountains to climb,” Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said Monday. “The good news is, we know that. This report goes into great detail to give us the facts. The challenge is, what are we going to do about it?”

The test is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based intergovernmental group of industrialized countries. The top math performers included Finland, Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland and New Zealand.

Compared with peers from the tested countries, even the highest U.S. achievers — those in the top percent of U.S. students — were outperformed.

U.S. scores held steady from 2000 to 2003 in the two math subject areas tested in both years. But both times, about two-thirds of the major industrialized countries did better.

The reasons are unclear, officials acknowledged.

Hickok cited two likely factors: insufficient qualifications and knowledge among many U.S. math teachers, and not enough effort to engage students in math at an early age.

Private researchers and the federal government will help reveal some underlying lessons for the United States by doing more analysis of the numbers, said Robert Lerner, commissioner of the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics. Hickok used the report to promote President Bush’s education agenda, which includes more state testing and tougher chool accountability in high school. That would mean an expansion of the No Child Left Behind Act that Bush signed into law in 2002, which requires yearly progress among all groups of students and largely focuses on elementary and middle school children.

By targeting students who are 15, the international test gauges students near the end of their mandatory schooling. U.S. students this age are typically in grade nine or 10.

The United States has the right intention of trying to raise achievement among all students, not just average scores, said Barry McGaw, education director of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“The crucial question, of course, is whether the intention is going to be realized,” McGaw said at the news conference.

Among other U.S. highlights compared with 2000, when the test was last given:

n There was no measurable change in the reading performance of U.S. students, either in the nation’s average score or in its average standing alongside other tested countries.

n In science, there was no significant change in the performance of U.S. students. But the U.S. score in science, which was average in 2000, fellow below average in 2003.

n U.S. students scored below the international average in problem-solving, a new category that tests one’s ability to use skills that cut across traditional subject areas.

Test participation is voluntary. In the United States, 262 schools and 5,456 students took part in the tests, including representative shares of public and private schools.

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