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Debunking Education Myths: America's Never Been Number One in Math

China getting the top spot on the PISA tests created a panic over America's fall from academic grace. But our scores are actually improving.


Has America really fallen behind the rest of the world in academic achievement? According to a new report from the nonprofit Brookings Institution, all the doom-and-gloom commentary suggesting that we've fallen from the top spot simply isn't true. And, even more surprising, America's results are actually on the rise.

National panic ensued last December when data from the Program for International Student Assessment tests revealed our less than stellar international math results. Even worse, high schoolers from our competitor du jour, China, scored the top spot. But the report's author, Tom Loveless, writes that, "The United States never led the world. It was never number one and has never been close to number one on international math tests. Or on science tests, for that matter."


Back in 1964, American 13-year-olds took the First International Math Study and ended up ranking in 11th place. Considering that only 12 nations participated, including Australia, Finland, and Japan, our next-to-last performance was pretty abysmal. Other international tests American students have taken over the years have also never showed that we were in the top spot. It's a myth that we've fallen from our glory days.

American students first took the PISA, which is administered every three years, in 2000. The United States has always scored in the middle of the pack, meaning, as Loveless told Education Week, "We once were terrible and now we're mediocre. I think that's a more accurate description, but we've never had scores that we should be proud of."

Indeed, we shouldn't be proud of our mediocrity, but there is a silver lining in the results: Between the 2006 and 2009 PISA tests, our scores "increased 5 points in reading, 13 points in math, and 13 points in science." Loveless says in his report that this improvement was strangely ignored by the media, politicians, and the education reform chattering class, but it's a notable increase because, according to a researcher from Stanford University, Eric Hanushek,

"an increase of 25 points on PISA over the next 20 years would boost United States GDP by $41 trillion. If the gains from 2006 to 2009 are duplicated when the PISA is next given in 2012, the goal of making 25-point gains in math and science will be met far ahead of schedule."

What about the rankings of our Sputnik 2011 competitor, China? The report notes that China hasn't participated in other international assessments, so a holistic picture of their true academic performance is unknown.

photo (cc) by Flickr user MforMarcus

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