With a Math Proficiency Rate of 32 Percent, U.S. Ranks Number 32

Thirty-two percent of U.S. students in the class of 2011 were proficient in mathematics when they were in 8th grade, according to the official U. S. report card on student achievement. Coincidentally, that places the United States in 32nd place among the 65 nations of the world that participated in PISA, the math test administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), my colleagues and I report today in a research paper available at Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.

That 32 percent proficiency rate compares to a 50 percent or better proficiency rate in  Korea, Finland, Switzerland, Japan, Canada and the Netherlands. In Shanghai, the proficiency rate is no less than 75 percent.  Many other nations also had math proficiency rates well above that of the United States, including Germany (45 percent), Australia (44 percent), and France (39 percent).

The report will be discussed at a webinar today, Wednesday, August 17 at 11 AM.  Tony Miller, the U. S. Deputy Secretary of Education, will discuss the findings at Harvard University at 6:30 PM Wednesday evening in a presentation that will stream live on the PEPG website.  A two-day conference at Harvard on what can be learned from other countries will also stream live on Thursday and Friday of this week on the PEPG website.

Of all the states, only Massachusetts has a majority of its students (51 percent) scoring at or above the proficiency mark.  Minnesota, the runner-up state, has a math proficiency rate of just 43 percent.

Only four additional states—Vermont, North Dakota, New Jersey, and Kansas—have a math proficiency rate above 40 percent.

Some of the country’s largest and richest states score below the average for the United States as a whole, including New York (30 percent), Missouri (30 percent), Michigan (29 percent), Florida (27 percent), and California (24 percent).

Proficiency in Reading

The U.S. proficiency rate in reading, at 31 percent, compares reasonably well to those of most European countries other than Finland. The U.S. takes 17th place among the nations of the world, and only the top 10 countries on PISA outperform the United States by a statistically significant amount. In Korea, 47 percent of the students are proficient in reading. Other countries that outrank the United States include Finland (46 percent), Singapore and New Zealand (42 percent), Japan and Canada (41 percent), Australia (38 percent), and Belgium (37 percent).

Within the United States, Massachusetts is again the leader, with 43 percent of 8th-grade students performing at the NAEP proficient level in reading. Shanghai students perform at a higher level, however, with 55 percent of young people proficient in reading. Within the United States, Vermont is a close second to its neighbor to the south, with a 42 percent proficiency rate. New Jersey and South Dakota come next, with 39 and 37 percent of the students identified as proficient in reading. The District of Columbia, the nation’s worst, performs at a level that cannot be distinguished statistically from that of Turkey, Russia, and Bulgaria. Students living in California (about one-eighth of the U. S. school-age population) are statistically tied with their peers in Slovakia and Spain.

Data and Approach

A national proficiency standard was set by the board that governs the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which is administered by the U.S. Department of Education and generally known as the nation’s report card.

We provide information on student performance in both reading and mathematics, but our main concern is the relative performance of U.S. students in mathematics. That information is obtained by comparing student performance on NAEP math and reading tests with the performance of students from across the world on similar examinations. If the NAEP exams are the nation’s report card, the world’s report card is assembled by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which administers the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) to representative samples of 15-year-old students in 68 of the world’s school systems.

Since the United States participates in the PISA examinations, it is possible to make direct comparisons between the average performance of U.S. students nationwide and that of their peers elsewhere. But because PISA exams do not set proficiency standards in the same way that NAEP exams do, one cannot calculate the percent proficient in the various countries of the world without performing a crosswalk between NAEP and PISA. Once that crosswalk has been performed, it is possible not only to provide estimates of the percentage of students who are proficient in various countries but also to view from an international perspective the performance of students from particular social groups as well as those living in specific states.

A crosswalk is made possible by the fact that representative (but separate) samples of the high-school graduating class of 2011 took both the NAEP and PISA math and reading examinations. NAEP tests were taken in 2007 when the class of 2011 was in 8th grade and PISA tested 15-year-olds in 2009, most of whom are members of the class of 2011. Given that NAEP identified 32 percent of U.S. 8th-grade students as proficient in math, the PISA equivalent is estimated by calculating the minimum score reached by the top-performing 32 percent of U.S. students participating in the 2009 PISA test.

Performance of U.S. Ethnic and Racial Groups

The percentage proficient in the United States varies considerably across students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. While 42 percent of white students were identified as proficient in math, only 11 percent of African American students, 15 percent of Hispanic students, and 16 percent of Native Americans were so identified. Fifty percent of students with an ethnic background from Asia and the Pacific Islands, however, were proficient in math, placing them at a level comparable to students in Belgium, Canada, and Japan, if lower than that of students in Korea and Taiwan.

In reading, 40 percent of white students and 41 percent of those from Asia and the Pacific Islands were identified as proficient. Only 13 percent of African American students, 5 percent of Hispanic students, and 18 percent of Native American students were so identified.

While the 42 percent rate of math proficiency for U.S. white students is much higher than the averages for students from African American and Hispanic backgrounds, U.S. white students are still surpassed by all students in 16 other countries. A better-than-25 percentage-point gap exists between the performance of U.S. white students and the percentage of all students deemed proficient in Korea and Finland. White students in the United States trail well behind all students in countries such Japan, Germany, Belgium, and Canada.

White students in Massachusetts outperform their peers in other states; 58 percent are at or above the proficient level in math. Maryland, New Jersey, and Texas are the other states in which a majority of white students is proficient in math. Given recent school-related political conflicts in Wisconsin, it is of interest that only 42 percent of that state’s white students are proficient in math, a rate no better than the national average.

The United States could enjoy a remarkable increment in its annual GDP growth per capita by enhancing the math proficiency of U.S. students. Increasing the percentage of proficient students to the levels attained in Canada and Korea would increase the annual U.S. growth rate by 0.9 percentage points and 1.3 percentage points, respectively. Since long-term average annual growth rates hover between 2 and 3 percentage points, that increment would lift growth rates by between 30 and 50 percent.

When translated into dollar terms, these magnitudes become staggering. If one calculates these percentage increases as national income projections over an 80-year period (providing for a 20-year delay before any school reform is completed and the newly proficient students begin their working careers), a back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests gains of nothing less than $75 trillion over the period. That averages out to around a trillion dollars a year.

-Paul E. Peterson

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