U.S. lags behind in advanced math scores

Nov. 19, 2010, 3:01 a.m.

The U.S. ranks 31st among industrialized nations in advanced math scores, making its scores comparable to Latvia, Italy and Spain, according to a November study conducted by a team of Stanford and Munich researchers.

(CAROLINE MARKS/The Stanford Daily)

The report, “Teaching Math to the Talented,” examined existing data from two tests administered to eighth graders in the U.S. and internationally in 2005 and 2006. While it’s the second, not the first, international comparison of math scores, it differs from the previous effort in significant areas.

Eric Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and one of three co-authors of the report, said the study is in response to President Obama’s “call to action to secure the future of our economy.”

“In the study, we’re looking at advanced-level math scores. These will correspond pretty well to the potential pool of people who will be scientists and engineers,” he said.

In the U.S., 6.04 percent of the report’s subjects were classified “advanced,” meaning they scored at least 617.1 on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test. Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea and Finland led the pack at more than 20 percent, and 12 other nations more than doubled America’s percentage.

Hanushek said the study is more accurate than the previous study because it’s based on a wider pool of test data. The previous study drew upon data from the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), which Hanushek says artificially inflates rankings for U.S. students because 22 higher-scoring nations didn’t participate. The U.S. ranked 14th in that study.

Hanushek and the other researchers instead looked to data from the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the 2006 PISA to arrive at what they believe to be more accurate conclusions.

The NAEP is only administered domestically, but it covers a much wider pool of test-takers and includes more demographic information for the U.S. than does the PISA, Hanushek said. Researchers compared NAEP data from American eighth graders to international PISA data from the same age level.

“We took the NAEP definition of an advanced student and figured out what proportion of U.S. students scored at the advanced math level—six percent,” Hanushek said. “We then went to the PISA data and found what PISA score corresponded to six percent of U.S. students.”

The method also allowed researchers to compare the scores of individual states. Massachusetts came in first with 11 percent scoring at the advanced level—placing it 14th internationally—while Mississippi came in last with only 1.4 percent at the advanced level, roughly at the level of Turkey and Thailand.

California ranked 34th in the country with 4.5 percent, below the national average of 6.04. Silicon Valley was on par with Greece and Portugal.

Hanushek said the team thought low scores in the U.S. might be in part attributable to statistically significant groups predisposed to academic disadvantage. Even when they isolated students with at least one college-educated parent, they found only 10.3 percent reached the advanced level, a group still outperformed by all test-takers from 16 nations.

“That pinpoints the issue that we have to improve: our schools,” Hanushek said. “We can’t just pretend that it’s all because of the parents.”

Deborah Stipek, dean of the Stanford School of Education, agreed that the root of the problem lies almost entirely in the schools.

“On average, elementary school teachers perpetuate poor teaching,” Stipek said. She attributes this to the low status and low pay of American teachers compared to those in other countries.

“In Finland and Japan, teachers are extremely high-status and well-paid,” she said. “Here, they are paid very poorly relative to other professions in the country that require the same level of education.”

For example, she said, “people who have strong backgrounds in math can go into stronger, more lucrative positions than teaching.”

Fundamental changes must be made to the teaching profession in the U.S., both Hanushek and Stipek argued, for any significant improvements to be seen. In California, the state’s role as a leader in technological innovation is at stake, Hanushek said.

“I have told our governor that if California is going to continue to be the center for innovation, it’s probably going to have to import from other states and other countries,” he said. “Right now, we’re just not producing a competitive group of students.”

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