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GLOBALLY CHALLENGED: Individual U.S. States’ Proficiency Rates Vary Dramatically When Compared With Other Countries

A recently released report details how individual U.S. states compare to countries around the world in student math and reading proficiency. The data shows that scores vary widely; for example, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Vermont were some of the highest performers, mirroring advanced countries such as Korea and Finland. However, low-performing states including Mississippi and California scored at the other end of the spectrum with less-developed nations.

Sixty-five countries participated in the recent Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which ranks nations based on the percentage of students in the Class of 2011 who were at or above the proficient level in math and reading. Overall, the United States placed thirty-second in mathematics with 32 percent of students scoring at the proficient level, and seventeenth in reading with 31 percent reaching that level. With more than two-thirds of students failing to reach proficiency, education experts are increasingly concerned that America is not doing enough to prepare children to compete in a twenty-first-century global economy.

The August Harvard University report Globally Challenged: Are U.S. Students Ready to Compete? pits U.S. states against countries around the world by comparing PISA results to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a federal exam administered by the U.S. Department of Education to students across the nation to measure achievement.

The study reports that 22 out of 31 countries “significantly” outperformed the United States in math. And a majority of students from six countries and major cities Shanghai and Hong Kong performed at the proficient level, compared to less than one-third of American students.

Massachusetts was the only U.S. state to have more than half (51 percent) of its students test proficient in math. The state with the next highest percentage to test proficient in math was Minnesota (43 percent); all other states fell far behind. Mississippi placed last with a rate of just 13.6 percent, a performance that is similar to countries such as Bulgaria, Uruguay, and Serbia. Other poor-performing states (20 percent or under) included New Mexico, Alabama, West Virginia, and Louisiana. Only 8 percent of students from the District of Columbia tested proficient in math, which closely resembles former Soviet Union territory Kazakhstan.

Overall, the United States fared better in reading and ranked seventeen out of thirty-one. Thirty-one percent of American students tested at or above the proficient level, compared to Korea, the top country in the world in this category, where 47 percent of its students tested at or above the proficient level.

In reading, Massachusetts was again the leader for the United States, with 43 percent of its students testing at or above proficient, followed by Vermont, New Jersey, and South Dakota. The District of Columbia and New Mexico were at the bottom of the list.

The data also shows a large disparity among racial and ethnic groups in the United States. Forty-two percent of white students were identified as proficient in math, compared to only 11 percent of African Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics. In reading, 40 percent of white students were proficient, compared to 5 percent of Hispanic students and 13 percent of African American students.

The report also notes the potential economic impact that an increase in student proficiency in math and reading could have on the United States. Increasing the United States’s  percentages of proficiency to those of top-scoring countries around the world could likely increase the annual U.S. gross domestic product growth-per-capita rate significantly.

View a chart that ranks U.S. states compared with other countries and download the complete report at

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