Math Matters: A country’s math skills are directly tied to its future wealth
“We know what it takes to compete for the jobs and industries of our time,” President Obama said last year. “We need to out-innovate, out-educate, and outbuild the rest of the world.” Yet despite the economic crisis facing the country, the U.S. educational system remains frozen in place, unable to adapt to contemporary global realities.
In the latest international tests administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 32 percent of U.S. public- and private-school students in the class of 2011 were deemed proficient in mathematics. This placed the United States thirty-second among the sixty-five participating nations. U.S. students ranked between Portugal and Italy and far behind South Korea, Finland, Canada, and the Netherlands, to say nothing of the city of Shanghai, with its 75 percent proficiency rate.
We became aware of the seriousness of the problem after we equated, with the help of colleagues, the test scores of the class of 2011 on the latest international test (when this class was in tenth grade) with its prior eighth-grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), an official U.S. test that both assesses performance of U.S. students and sets the standard for proficiency.
Linking these tests also allowed us to compare the performance of students in each state with that of students in other countries. The results are scary. Even in Massachusetts, with its renowned collection of public and private schools, students reach only the level attained by students in the entire nations of Canada, Japan, and Switzerland. Massachusetts, the only state with a majority of students (51 percent) above the proficiency mark, trails well behind students in South Korea and Finland, as well as those in top-performing Shanghai.
The math proficiency of students in New York is equivalent to that of students in debt-ridden Portugal and Spain.
The percentage proficient in the state of New York (30 percent) is equivalent to that achieved by students in debt-ridden Portugal and Spain. California, the home of highly skilled Silicon Valley, has a math proficiency rate of 24 percent, the same as bankrupt Greece and just a notch above struggling Russia. By the time we get down to New Mexico and Mississippi, we are making comparisons with Serbia and Bulgaria.
Obama, to his credit, has highlighted the problem repeatedly. But too many state education officials have done their best to obfuscate the low performance of their students. Under the educational accountability rules set down by the federal No Child Left Behind law, each state may set its own proficiency standard, and most have set their standards well below the world-class level. As a result, most state proficiency reports grossly inflate the percentage of students who are proficient, if we account for the fact that our students need to compete not just with others from the same state but also with those across the globe.