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U.S. MATH PERFORMANCE IN GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE: U.S. Students with Advanced Math Skills Lag Behind International High-Achieving Peers

“Public discourse has tended to focus on the need to address low achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students, and bring everyone up to a minimum level of proficiency,” said Peterson. “As great as this need may be, there is no less need to lift more students, no matter their socioeconomic background, to high levels of educational accomplishment.”

A new report finds that 6 percent of U.S. public and private school students tested at the advanced level in eighth-grade mathematics, compared to 28 percent of students in Taiwan and at least 20 percent of students in Finland, Hong Kong, and Korea. The report, U.S. Math Performance in Global Perspective: How Well Does Each State Do at Producing High-Achieving Students?, compares the percentage of U.S. students who have advanced math skills in each of the fifty states and in ten urban districts to the percentages of similarly high achievers in fifty-six other countries.

In conducting the study, the authors use test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to compare individual U.S. state performances with performances by other countries. The authors explain their focus on math by noting that it is “particularly well suited” to rigorous comparisons across countries and cultures. “There is a fairly clear international consensus on the math concepts and techniques that need to be mastered and on the order in which those concepts should be introduced into the curriculum,” the report reads.

The report finds that overall the United States ranks thirty-first out of fifty-six countries, trailing most of the world’s leading industrialized nations. In addition to the four countries listed above, twelve other countries have at least twice the percentage of highly accomplished students as the United States: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Czech Republic, Germany, Japan, Liechtenstein, Macao, Netherlands, New Zealand, and Switzerland.

The study is presented by Education Next and Harvard University’s Program on Education Policy and Governance. It is coauthored by Eric Hanushek, the Paul and Jean Hanna senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover InstitutionPaul Peterson, editor-in-chief for Education Next, the Henry Lee Shattuck professor of government at Harvard, and director of Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance; and Ludger Woessmann, professor of economics at the University of Munich, head of the department of human capital and innovation at Ifo Institute for Economic Research, and coordinator of the European Expert Network on the Economics of Education (EENEE).

The report finds that the percentages of high-performing math students vary widely from state to state—from a high of 11.4 percent in Massachusetts to a low of 1.3 percent in Mississippi. No state fairs very well when compared internationally. In fact, most states rank alongside developing countries such as Latvia, Portugal, Russia, and Turkey. Massachusetts, the highest-performing state, is on par with countries such as Denmark, France, and Germany, but it still trails fourteen other countries. The next four highest-performing states are Minnesota (10.8 percent), Vermont (8.8 percent), New Jersey (8.7 percent), and Washington (8.7 percent), which fall into the same group as Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, among others.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mississippi is joined by New Mexico and West Virginia as the lowest-ranking states (both with 1.4 percent of students), making their performances comparable to that of countries such as Bulgaria and Turkey. Noting that California is known for its Silicon Valley, which boasts excellence in high-tech innovation and development, the report points out that the state had only 4.5 percent of students performing at a high level making it comparable to countries such as Israel, Italy, Portugal, and Turkey.

“Public discourse has tended to focus on the need to address low achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students, and bring everyone up to a minimum level of proficiency,” said Peterson. “As great as this need may be, there is no less need to lift more students, no matter their socioeconomic background, to high levels of educational accomplishment.”

The study was partly conducted to test what Hanushek describes as the “diversity excuse” in a recent article in the Atlantic. Talking to AtlanticReporter Amanda Ripley, he says, “In the litany of excuses, one explanation is always, ‘We’re a very heterogeneous society—all these immigrants are dragging us down. But our kids are doing fine.”

To challenge this reasoning, the study compares the percentage of white American students in the Class of 2009 who scored at the advanced math level with the percentages of all students with high skills, regardless of race or ethnicity, from other countries. The results show that in twenty-four countries, the percentage of highly accomplished students from all backgrounds exceeds the 8 percent of white students in the United States who perform at an advanced level. This pattern occurs across most states with only seven states having 10 percent or more of their white students who perform at an advanced level. In California, for example, 7.2 percent of white students are high achieving—about the same percentage as all students in Ireland, Lithuania, Poland, and Slovakia.

U.S. Math Performance in Global Perspective also explores the theory that American schools help students reach levels of high accomplishment if parents are providing the necessary support. When comparing U.S. children from educated families to all children in other countries, the study finds that sixteen countries still outrank the United States. Of all U.S. Class of 2009 students with parents who graduated from college, only 10.3 percent perform at the advanced level, compared to nearly 30 percent of all Taiwanese children, regardless of their parents’ educational attainment.

Lastly, the report examines the percentages of students scoring at advanced levels in urban districts and finds that Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Washington, DC have lower percentages of students at this level than do Bulgaria and Uruguay. Consequently, these school districts’ ability to lift student performance to the highest levels is roughly equivalent to the ability of schools in Latin America.

In a November 10 post on Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog, Mike Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and executive editor at Education Next, examines how the United States continues to be a global leader, especially in high-tech fields, while its top students perform poorly by international comparisons. Reasoning that the sheer size of the United States is a huge advantage compared to smaller countries such as Taiwan and Hong Kong, Petrilli multiplies the percentages from the study by the student population of each country and finds that the picture for the United States “appears much better—and much brighter,” as demonstrated in the graph below.



Download U.S. Math Performance in Global Perspective at

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