Technology in schools and colleges–and in the world at large–ultimately rests on a strong foundation of mathematics. Now comes evidence suggesting that 15-year-olds in the United States have fallen behind much of the world in mathematics–at least by one widely recognized measure.

Compared with their peers in Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, 15-year-olds in the United States are below average when it comes to applying math skills to real-life tasks, new test scores show. The results point to the need for U.S. school leaders to rethink how they teach mathematics to prepare students for success in the 21st century.

The U.S. students were behind most other countries in overall math literacy and in every specific area tested in 2003, from geometry and algebra to statistics and computation.

The latest scores from the Program for International Student Assessment also show that white U.S. students scored above the average, while blacks and Hispanics scored below it. That achievement gap has become the focus of federal education policy.

Rod Paige, secretary of education during the first Bush term, called the new scores a “blinking warning light” as the Bush administration seeks to raise expectations and expand testing in high school.

The international test is not a measure of grade-level curriculum, but rather a gauge of the skills of 15-year-olds and how well students can apply them to problems they might face in life. It also aims to give the United States an external reality check about how it is doing.

One expert who reviewed the scores, Jack Jennings of the independent Center on Education Policy, said the test is more a measure of how math is taught than what students know. Many U.S. math classes teach analytical or theoretical thinking, not everyday math application, Jennings said.

“You could have American kids knowing more math; it’s just that they might test lower than other countries because their learning is not geared toward practical application,” he said.

By comparison, scale scores on the United States’ own math test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, have risen sharply for fourth-graders and eighth-graders since 1990. That test, however, differs in its content and in that it is geared to specific grades, not ages.

The international assessment measures math, reading, and science literacy among 15-year-olds every three years. This time, the main focus was math.

Among 29 industrialized countries, the United States scored below 20 nations and above five in math. The U.S. performance was about the same as Poland, Hungary, and Spain.

When compared with all 39 nations that produced scores, the United States was below 23 countries, above 11, and about the same as four others, with Latvia joining the middle group.

“We cannot afford to let the skills of our students fall behind the skills of students in other nations,” said Joseph Tucci, chairman of the education task force of the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers from major U.S. corporations. The business group is calling for a renewed national commitment to science and math education.

The test is run by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based intergovernmental group of industrialized countries. The top math performers included Finland, Korea, the Netherlands, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Switzerland, and New Zealand.

Compared with peers from the OECD countries, even the highest U.S. achievers–those in the top 1 percent of U.S. students–were outperformed.

U.S. scores held steady from 2000 to 2003 in the two math subject areas tested in both years. But both times, about two-thirds of the major industrialized countries did better.

Less clear is why, officials acknowledged.

Eugene Hickok, the outgoing deputy secretary of education, said at a news conference Dec. 6 that contributing factors included too few qualified math teachers and not enough effort to engage students in math at an early age.

Private researchers and the federal government will help uncover some underlying lessons for the United States by doing more analysis of the numbers, said Robert Lerner, commissioner of the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Compared with 2000, there was no measurable change in the reading performance of U.S. students, or in the nation’s average standing when compared to other OECD countries.

There was no change in science, either, in terms of the performance of U.S. students. But the U.S. score in science has now fallen below the international average.


Program for International Student Assessment

Center on Education Policy

Business Roundtable

National Center for Education Statistics