US People in International Academic and Skill Tests: Mediocre Students, Lagging Adults


In a report to be disclosed by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) in the US Education Department, Math and science test results of Grade 8 students in individual states of the US are compared with those in 38 countries and 9 states that have participated in the tests earlier, which suggests a marginal outperformance of the majority of the US states over other countries, reported the New York Times on Oct 23rd.

For most American, this sounds relieving since they have been hearing for years that their kids are falling behind peers of other countries. Nonetheless, according to the report, even in the top-performing states (such as Massachusetts, Vermont and Minnesota), the number of high-score achievers is fewer than that of East Asian countries. Statistics show that 36 states are over international average in math exams, but to look more specifically, 19% of the students from the top-performing state, Massachusetts, managed to achieve the international advanced benchmark, comparing to an approximate 50% in South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan. As for science, 24% of Massachusetts eighth graders reached the highest score range, while 40% in Singapore did the same; in Mississippi, the figure is somehow a disappointing 3%. 47 states' average scores in the science test are above the international average.

Jack Buckley, commissioner of the NCES, owns the unsatisfactory average scores to demography. Given that the candidates of the tests were randomly picked based on demography, Buckley explained that the US population is much more diverse than many other countries, among which there are a "high and growing" number of students who speak English as only a second language.

The results support the improvement that some states have made in recent years. For instance, Massachusetts has raised math and science standards over the last decade, and all new elementary and special education teachers in the state have been required to pass a math proficiency test so as to get a license from 2009 on.

Some still do not think that American should be content with the current situation. Paul Peterson, an education policy researcher at Harvard, pointed out that the test results mainly include those of many developing countries (results of China and India are not included) and some highly industrialized countries such as France, Germany and Denmark did not take part in the tests. "So if you really want to compare the US to the developing world, then we do look good," said Peterson.

For American adults, things have been much tougher. From August 2011 to April 2012, he Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) carried out a study of literacy and numeracy skills of adults in 24 developed countries for the first time, and results came at the beginning of this October that US adults fell below international average. A total of 166,000 people aged 16–65 sat the tests, among

 which 5,000 were American. The US fell behind 13 countries in math, while did better than only two countries in science. Another worse fact is that young American were proved to be outperformed by the elderlies (aged 55–65). (The UK is also facing the same problems.)

Contents of the OECD tests do not look difficult. In literacy, for example, candidates were led to a website promoting a sport program. There were some links on the website page, such as "Contact Us" and "FAQs". Then they were asked to tell which link provided the organizers' phone number. One question in math was to ask candidates to figure out how many candles were there in a packaged box by deducing from the number of rows and columns of candles they could see. (Source: USA Today)
Mr. Peterson described the outcomes as "quite distressing", referring to the reality that other countries had been catching up. "At one time, we had a really significant lead, but these people are disappearing from the workforce." Both he and John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, happen to compare their countries' current situation to "a car crash in slow motion".

Some believe that the cause for US's low average scores lies in the drastic gap between people from higher education backgrounds and those from lower education backgrounds. As Mr. Peterson claimed, "There's a 20-year-delay between the quality of the education system."

"Adults who have trouble reading, doing math, solving problems and using technology will find the doors of the 21st century workforce close to them," commented the Educational Secretary Arne Duncan. He appealed for the country's efforts to find new means to "challenge and reach" more adults to help them enhance their skills.

 (Photo: Rogelio V. Solis, AP)

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