If you believe everything critics claim about our public schools, you’d think our children would be better off going to school in a third-world country.
Yet, if you actually looked at the data, you’d see this is far from the case. While it is true U.S. 15-year-olds rank 24th in the world in math and 19th in science, these results are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to international comparisons. U.S. students fare much better on almost every other international comparison of student achievement.
Unfortunately, a number of education experts and organizations all too often cherry-pick the least flattering data from a litany of international comparisons in order to advance their own agendas. But when you look at international assessments as a whole, you clearly see areas where U.S. students excel, along with areas with a clear need for improvement. While those comparisons in which the U.S. falls short get the majority of attention, here are areas of success that typically do not get the same focus.
It may come as a surprise that U.S. elementary and middle school students do quite well in math, where they have made tremendous improvements over the past two decades. As a matter of fact, between 1995 and 2007, U.S. eighth-graders made significantly higher academic gains (16 points) than high-performing countries like Japan and Singapore, who actually saw their achievement drop by 11 and 16 points, respectively, over that time.
Additionally, U.S. eighth-graders made nearly as much improvement as Korea (17 points), one of the most improved and highest-performing education systems during this time period.
While such improvements did not launch the U.S. to the top of the international rankings, they did land the U.S. among the Top 10. In 2007, only five other countries outperformed U.S. eighth-graders, and just eight countries outperformed U.S. fourth-graders.
A similar story is told when it comes to the performance of our elementary and middle school students in science. U.S. students made significant gains and rank in the Top 10 at both the fourth-and eighth-grade levels.
In particular, just three countries made significantly greater gains at the eighth-grade level than the U.S., which improved its performance by 7 points. These gains are in stark contrast to the declines made by both Singapore and Japan, a decline of 13 and 1 point, respectively. And just as in math, the U.S. gains were similar to those made by Korea (7 points).
Unlike in math, where eighth-graders ranked higher than fourth-graders, in science fourth-graders ranked higher than eighth-graders. Specifically, just four countries outperformed U.S. fourth-graders, while at the eighth-grade level nine countries outperformed the U.S. in science.
Unfortunately, the U.S. has not improved as much in reading. Even so, U.S. students continue to rank near the Top 10 in the world. At the fourth-grade level, U.S. students outperformed all but 10 of 44 countries in reading in 2006 -- compared to outperforming all but three countries in 2001.
At the high school level, where U.S. performance drops off in math and science, rankings for U.S. 15-year-olds have actually improved over the past decade, where the U.S. outperformed all but nine of 64 countries in 2009 -- compared to outperforming all but 11 of 38 countries in 2003.
Civics doesn’t normally get as much attention as math, science, and reading do, but it is important to point out that no country outperformed U.S. ninth-graders on the international Civics Assessment in 1999, the last year the assessment was given.
Of course, a lot has changed since 1999, but it is important to point out that the U.S. has recently led the world in civics education. It also provides some credence to the argument that U.S. students may be receiving a more well-rounded education than students in countries that are outperforming us in math and science.
States vs. international
Even though the U.S. has made significant progress and compares fairly well against the rest of the world in math and science, we still don’t score nearly as well as the high-performing Asian countries such as Singapore, Korea, and Japan.
However, if you compare the performance of individual states to these high-performing countries, the picture is much different. For example, in 2007, both Massachusetts and Minnesota scored right up there with the high-performing Asian countries.
As a matter of fact, Massachusetts fourth-graders performed just as well as Japanese students and just below top-performing Hong Kong and Singapore. Minnesota scored just below Japan.
The performance of schools in Massachusetts and Minnesota ranked alongside those in the top-performing countries, despite the fact that they have a greater percentage of schools that serve a large number of economically disadvantaged students.
In top-performing Hong Kong, 21 percent of schools have a majority of economically disadvantaged students. In the other high-performing Asian countries, the percentage is much lower. In Singapore, Japan, and Chinese Taipei, only about 10 percent of schools have enrollments of a majority of students who are economically disadvantaged.
On the other hand, in Massachusetts and Minnesota, the percentages are 17 and 21 percent, respectively. Those states perform as well as high-performing Asian countries even though they serve more economically disadvantaged students, in most cases.
It can be done
Massachusetts and Minnesota show that it is possible for the U.S. to reach the top of the international standings. However, when ranked against other countries, most states don’t compare nearly as well, even those states that serve similar students.
Other states can look to Minnesota and Massachusetts to examine what they are doing right. They can ask such questions as: Do they have higher or clearer standards? Do they recruit and retain more effective teachers and principals? Do they invest more in professional development?
Even if the answers to these questions are yes, that does not necessarily mean if states implement the same strategies they will jump to the top of the international standings. At the very least, the answers can provide some indication as to why Minnesota and Massachusetts perform so well.
Learning about best practices in other states or countries and modifying those practices to meet the needs of the schools in your district is an effective means to catapult the U.S. to the top of the international rankings.
Jim Hull is senior policy analyst at NSBA’s Center for Public Education. He is the author of CPE’s report, More Than a Horse Race: A Guide To International Assessments, which can be found at www.centerforpublic education.org.