US Students Math Skills

Across the world primary school students' performance in math and science is assessed using the international exam Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMSS).  American students however do not take the test.  In order to see how American students compare to students in other countries, The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) conducted a special study: the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).  The results of this study (which was conducted in 2011 with eighth-grade students in all 52 states/jurisdictions that participated in the NAEP mathematics and science assessments) were recently released.

NAEP and TIMSS both report results by average scale scores.  They also classify scores into achievement levels (NAEP) or benchmarks (TIMSS) that provide a way to interpret average scores and understand how students’ proficiency in mathematics and science varies.

When examining average scale scores, the NAEP found that overall, US students' math scores are comparable to, or better than, the international average in mathematics.  Only six states had scores lower than the international average; 36 states scored higher; and 10 states had scores that were not significantly different from the average.  However there is a great amount of state variation.  Massachussetts students scored the highest in the nation.  They outperformed 42 of the 47 countries in the TIMSS, excelling at a level comparable to high-achieving Japan.  But other states, such as Mississippi and Alabama, had scores that would rank them in the bottom half internationally.

In science, US students performed even better: 47 states scored higher than the international average in science; two states had scores that were not significantly different from the average and only three states had lower scores.  But while Massachussetts and Vermont rank fourth out of the 47 participating education systems, the District of Columbia comes far behind in 33rd place.

Another finding of the study was that other countries far outperform the US in terms of percentage of students reaching the Advanced or High benchmarks in mathematics and science, even in states like Massachussetts: 19 percent of MA students reached the Advanced benchmark in mathematics, compared to 47 percent of eighth-graders in the Republic of Korea, 48 percent in Singapore, and 49 percent in Chinese Taipei.  In science, 24 percent of MA eighth-graders reached the Advanced benchmark, compared to Singapore's 40 percent.

Says Jack Buckley of NCES, "we found that most eighth-graders in the United States are competitive in mathematics  and science when their performances were compared to those of their peers from around the globe. Yet even our leading states are behind the highest-performing countries in terms of the percentages of students performing at the highest levels."

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Frederique Laubepin

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