Is Our Children Learning Math?
The disappointing performance of U.S. teenagers in math and science on an international exam, in scores released yesterday, has sparked calls for improvement in public schools to help the country keep pace in the global economy.
The scores from the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment showed that U.S. 15-year-olds trailed their peers from many industrialized countries. The average science score of U.S. students lagged behind those in 16 of 30 countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based group that represents the world's richest countries. The Americans were farther behind in math, trailing counterparts in 23 countries.
"How are our children going to be able to compete with the children of the world? The answer is not well," said former Colorado governor Roy Romer, chairman of Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan group seeking to make education prominent in the 2008 presidential election.
The PISA test, given every three years, measures the ability of 15-year-olds to apply math and science knowledge in real-life contexts. About 400,000 students, including 5,600 in the United States, took the 2006 exam. There is also a reading portion, but results for U.S. students were thrown out because the tests were printed incorrectly.
There are lots of details if you go to the study's report.
For example, the US failure is hardly across the board. The 90th percentile of US students perform slightly above average on the science test, for example. Also, three ethnic groups perform near or above the OECD average (whites, asians, and mixed-race students), with low scores concentrated in traditionally disadvantaged minorities (blacks, Hispanics, native Americans).
It's interesting to look at some special cases. Finland is overwhelmingly the champ: highest average, by far, most students in the top group, fewest in the bottom groups (by far). In 2000, Finland was a somewhat distant third behind Korea and Japan, but by 2003 it was tied with Japan only 2 points (out of 1000) behind Champ Hong Kong. In 2006, they left everybody in their dust. We could do worse than taking a hard look at how they do math and science education. As Finland rose, Korea and Japan declined. Why?
Male and female students are extremely close overall, but males have a pronounced advantage in one skill and females in another.
Math and science education seems to be weak in Muslim countries, especially among males. What does this mean? I have no idea.
The sample of nations is rather restricted: no African nations (***oops, I missed Tunisia***) seem to be represented, and India is missing. So is China, except for representatives from Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.
In science, the US fits pretty clearly in a middle group, well above most of the undeveloped nations, but well below most of Europe, Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia, etc.) If it's any comfort, Israel and Russia are even worse off.
Math is somewhat worse. We are distinctly off the pace, but still above the undeveloped countries (as well as Israel, Italy and Greece.)