U.S. Students Lag Behind the World

May 22, 2014

American students -- including those from advantaged backgrounds -- perform poorly on tests compared to students in other countries, according to researchers Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson and Ludger Woessman.

Polls indicate that affluent Americans tend to doubt the efficacy of the nation's public schools (in one survey, only 15 percent believed that American schools deserved an A or B ranking), yet they are less skeptical about the performance of their own local schools. In that same survey, 54 percent reported that their local schools deserved A or B rankings.

Hanushek, Peterson and Woessman analyzed student performance on recent achievement tests, focusing especially on math, a subject that has been linked to a nation's economic well-being.

What they found was that American schools did just as poor of a job teaching students from well-educated families as they did teaching students from less educated families:

  • Only 35 percent of American students in the class of 2015 were proficient in math. The U.S. ranks twenty-seventh among the 34 OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) countries for math proficiency. Nearly twice as many students in Korea, Japan and Switzerland are proficient in math.
  • Among students whose parents had a low level of education, only 17 percent of U.S. students were proficient in math. This is much less than the percentage of proficient, similarly situated students in Korea (46 percent), the Netherlands (37 percent), Germany (35 percent) and Japan (34 percent). The U.S. ranks twentieth among OECD countries for this measure.
  • Students from moderately well-educated families had a math proficiency rate of 26 percent, half the rate of similar students in Switzerland (57 percent), Korea (56 percent), Germany (52 percent) and the Netherlands (50 percent). Japan, Canada, Poland, the U.K. and France all perform better than the U.S. For performance of the moderately well-educated, the U.S. ranks thirtieth among the 34 OECD countries.
  • The proficiency rate for students from well-educated families was 43 percent. However, the U.S. still remains at the bottom compared to the performance of similarly situated students in other countries, ranking twenty-eighth.

In short, the study found that the international rankings of American students are poor for students from both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. While students from advantaged backgrounds had higher levels of proficiency on math compared to other students within the U.S., they still performed poorly compared to their counterparts in other nations.

Source: Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, "U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests," Education Next, Fall 2014.

 

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