NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

High Confidence Not Translating to High Math Scores for Students

August 9, 2013

Swedish fourth graders are leading the world in mathematics, followed closely by those in other developed European nations, at least if we look at students' reported self-confidence in the subject, says Swedish author Nima Sanandaji.

  • Fully 77 percent of Swedish students at fourth grade express a high level of confidence about their learning, compared to merely 5 percent who express a low level.
  • Self-confidence is somewhat less common among U.S. fourth graders, where 67 percent believe that they perform highly in mathematics and 10 percent express the opposite view.

Unfortunately, this confidence -- in America and elsewhere -- is not backed up by high achievement.

  • As shown by the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, the average U.S. student with high confidence only scored 551 on the test.
  • This is just half a standard deviation from the average score of 500.

The phenomenon where many students believe that they are doing well in mathematics (while they are in fact lagging behind other nations) is even more evident in several European nations.

  • In Sweden the average score of the self-identified high achievers is only 514. The sureness of Swedish students seems to rise from a progressive school system.
  • As more focus is put on promoting self-expression and raising self-esteem than on actual knowledge gathering and hard work, students with only slightly higher international scores identify themselves as being high achievers.

When competing in the global marketplace, or applying for top universities, the self-identified high-achievers of Europe and the United States are challenged by students from places such as Hong Kong and Singapore, where the school systems focus more on actual achievements and thrift.

  • In Hong Kong and Singapore 46 percent of fourth graders identify themselves as high achievers.
  • On average they score -- impressively -- 634 and 639, respectively, on the international math test.
  • Even the students who have a low self-confidence in Singapore score 544 on the international test. Hong Kong's self-identified low-achievers score on average 574.
  • This is considerably higher than the values reached by those believing themselves to be high-achievers in Sweden and close to that of the same group in the United States.

In an increasingly knowledge-intensive society, policy leaders should ask themselves what this western complacency does with the urge to learn more.

Source: Nima Sanandaji, "High Confidence Not Translating to High Math Scores for American and European Students," New Geography, July 25, 2013.


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