NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Is the United States Catching Up?

October 4, 2012

For decades, leaders in the United States have swept the problems of education under the rug. Now, the nation faces dire consequences as students leave school unprepared for the workface, threatening the United States' economic competitiveness and global standing, say Eric A. Hanushek, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, Paul E. Peterson, director of the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance, and Ludger Woessmann, head of the Department of Human Capital and Innovation at the Ifo Institute at the University of Munich.

  • In 2010, just 6 percent of U.S. students performed at an advanced level in math.
  • And in 2011, just 32 percent of eighth graders were proficient in math.
  • This puts the United States at a percentage lower than those attained by 30 other countries.
  • In the face of declining test scores, governments at the local, state and national level have increased funding for education by about 35 percent per student.

To assess whether the United States is narrowing the international education gap, Hanushek, Peterson and Woessmann take learning gains between 1995 and 2009 for 49 countries and examine the changes in student performance in 41 states within the United States.

  • Between 1995 and 2009, student achievement on math, reading and science tests increased 22 percent of the standard deviation.
  • However, 24 other countries are improving at a faster rate.
  • Progress in the individual states varies widely -- Maryland had the steepest growth trend while Iowa had the slowest rate of improvement.

Some argue that the upward trend in test scores is not significant since those students are simply playing catch-up. In other words, states that were performing at a lower level could only go up, and could copy existing approaches to improving education quality at little cost. But the data show no significant pattern between original performance and changes in performance across countries. For example, countries that were high performing still advanced rapidly.

Another theory is that spending more money on education yields better test scores. However, there is a weak correlation between spending increases and test scores. States with large spending increments, like New York, had marginal test score gains. Instead, it seems that schools made genuine reforms to make their schools better providers of quality education.

Despite what gains the United States seems to be making in education, there is still a long way to go. Indeed, the relative ranking of the United States remains unchanged.

Source: Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson and Ludger Woessmann, "Is the U.S. Catching Up?" EducationNext, Fall 2012.


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