Our nation’s graduating high school class of 2011 had a 32 percent proficiency rate in math and a 31 percent proficiency rate in reading, leaving many to question whether schools are adequately preparing students for the 21st century global economy, says a new report. U.S. students fall behind 31 countries in math proficiency and behind 16 countries in reading proficiency, according to the recent study, “Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete?” by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance.
Although math performance levels among countries that ranked 23 to 31 aren’t significantly different from that of the U. S., 22 countries outperform the U. S. in the number of students reaching math proficiency. In six countries—plus Shanghai and Hong Kong—a majority of students performed at the proficient level, while in the U.S., less than one-third did. For example, 58 percent of Korean students and 56 percent of Finnish students were proficient. Other countries in which a majority-or near majority-of students performed at or above the proficient level include Switzerland, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands. Many other nations also had math proficiency rates well above that of the U. S., including Germany (45 percent), Australia (44 percent), and France (39 percent). Shanghai topped the list with a 75 percent math proficiency rate, more than two times the 32 percent rate of the United States.
When it comes to reading, American students performed reasonably well compared to most European countries, and only 10 countries outperform us by a statistically significant amount. In Korea, 47 percent of students are proficient in reading. Other countries that outrank the U. S. include Finland (46 percent), Singapore and New Zealand (42 percent), Japan and Canada (41 percent), Australia (38 percent), and Belgium (37 percent).
The proficiency rate in the United States varies considerably across students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, the report says. While 42 percent of white students were identified as proficient in math, only 11 percent of African American students, 15 percent of Hispanic students, and 16 percent of Native Americans were proficient. Fifty percent of students with an ethnic background from Asia and the Pacific Islands, however, were proficient in math. In reading, 40 percent of white students and 41 percent of those from Asia and the Pacific Islands were identified as proficient. Only 13 percent of African-American students, 5 percent of Hispanic students, and 18 percent of Native American students were proficient.
“Given the disparate performance among students from various cultural backgrounds, it may be worth inquiring as to whether differences between the United States and other countries are attributable to the substantial minority population within the U. S.,” the study says, explaining that to examine that question, researchers compared white American students to all students in other countries. “We do this not because we think this is the right comparison, but simply to consider the oft-expressed claim that comparisons do not take into account the fact that the United States is a much more diverse society than many of the high-performing countries.”
It found that while the 42 percent math proficiency rate for U.S. white students is much higher than the averages for students from African American and Hispanic backgrounds, white American students are still surpassed by all students in 16 other countries.
“A better than 25-percentage-point gap exists between the performance of U.S. white students and the percentage of all students deemed proficient in Korea and Finland,” the study says. “White students in the United States trail well behind all students in countries such as Japan, Germany, Belgium, and Canada.” In reading, only 40 percent of white students are proficient, but that proficiency rate would place the U. S. at number nine in the world.
What do these findings mean? “The United States could enjoy a remarkable increment in its annual GDP growth per capita by enhancing the math proficiency of U.S. students,” the study says. “Increasing the percentage of proficient students to the levels attained in Canada and Korea would increase the annual U.S. growth rate by 0.9 percentage points and 1.3 percentage points, respectively. When translated into dollar terms, these magnitudes become staggering.”
For example, if you calculate these percentage increases as national income projections over an 80-year period, it could potentially total a trillion dollars a year, the report says.
“Those who say that student math performance does not matter are clearly wrong,” the study adds.
The report looked at student performance on two tests: the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the exam administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the 2007 National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP), headed by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.
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