For a nation committed to preparing students for 21st century
jobs, the results of the first-of-its-kind study of how well
teenagers can apply math skills to real-life problems is sobering.
American 15-year-olds rank well below those in most other
industrialized countries in mathematics literacy and problem
solving, according to a survey released Monday.
Although the notion that America faces a math gap is not new,
Monday's results show with new clarity that the problem extends
beyond the classrooms into the kind of life-skills that employers
care about. And to the surprise of some experts, the US shortcoming
exists even when only top students in each nation are considered.
"It's very disturbing for business if the capacity to take what
you know ... and apply it to something novel is difficult for US
teenagers," says Susan Traiman, director of education and workforce
policy at the Business Roundtable.
Grim results on such international tests helped build political
support for higher standards in US schools in the 1990s, and
especially for more consistent testing and tougher accountability
measures in the No Child Left Behind Act, a centerpiece of President
Bush's domestic program in his first term.
The president campaigned to extend that testing regime into US
high schools in his second term. The new test results are likely to
be Exhibit A as the Bush administration prepares a new round of
education reforms aimed at US high schools.
The tests also give educators some clues about teaching programs
that are successful and might be transplanted to the US.
"These tests are enormously instructive to the US, especially
when we look at the instructional programs in other countries to see
what works," says Michael Casserly, executive director of the
Council of the Great City Schools.
A key to the success of students in other nations is a very
focused curriculum, maintained over time, he adds. "We can't do it
nationally," because the US is a vast, diverse country with little
appetite for a national curriculum. "But we can do it in cities, and
The international survey was done by the Organization for
Economic Cooperation and Development's Program for International
Student Assessment (PISA) in 2003, testing 15-year-olds.
But PISA, unlike previous international assessments, is measuring
not just whether students have learned a set math curriculum, but
whether they can apply math concepts outside the classroom. In the
US, 262 schools and 5,456 students participated in the two-hour,
paper and pencil assessment. Most answers were constructed
responses, not just the multiple choice format.
In one question, students are asked to calculate the number of
dots on the bottom face of six dice, given the rule that the total
number of dots on two opposite faces is always seven. Only 63
percent of US students got it right, compared with 68 percent of
their peers in OECD countries. (This question was ranked Level 2,
out of three proficiency levels.) Other problems involved
constructing simple decision tree diagrams for a lending library,
figuring out which gate is stuck closed in an irrigation system, and
generating graphics on computers.
The survey comes a week before another set of results of global
math performance, which could also cast the US as faltering. …