NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


December 10, 2004

American fifteen-year-olds lag behind other industrialized countries in math skills, according to a recent study sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In fact, among the 29 member countries of the OECD, the United States ranks 24th, which could bode ill for America's economic growth, say observers.

The study, called the Program for International Student Assessment, used a 500-point scale as the adjusted average. The results:

  • Students in the United States averaged 483 points, 61 points behind Finland and 51 points behind Japan.
  • When 10 non-member countries are included in the OECD study, the United States ranked 27th -- tied with Latvia.
  • The OECD study also examined reading and science skills, where U.S. students fared better than in math, scoring 491 points in science and 495 points in reading.
  • Hispanics and blacks scored lowest, with Hispanics averaging 443 and blacks averaging 417.

Harvard University economist Richard Murname points out that low-scoring groups are becoming a larger share of the labor market, and that their productivity will determine future economic growth and Social Security solvency. Indeed, Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek estimates that the United States' lag behind other OECD countries may reduce its GDP growth rate as much as one-half percent annually.

While college entrance exam scores have improved in recent years, some argue that it's due to the exams being made easier. In fact, 17 percent of college students must take remedial math courses before starting their degree plan.

Source: June Kronholz, "Economic Time Bomb: U.S. Teens are Among Worst at Math," Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2004; and "Program for International Student Assessment: PISA 2003 Summary," National Center for Education Statistics.

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