Every international comparison of US students with students in certain Asian countries presents an opportunity for self-flagellation. A new analysis by Gary Phillips of the American Institutes for Research is no different.
Phillips used various statistical techniques to convert the scores other nations achieved on the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) test to scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the NAEP, or "nation's report card" test that a sample of American 4th, 8th, and 12th graders take every few years). Specifically, he compared 8th grade mathematics scores. The results show that the U.S. is right in the middle of the pack. About two-thirds (65%) of 8th graders scored at or above the basic level, 27% scored at or above proficient, and 6% scored at or above advanced.
This isn't awful (the Jordanian equivalent of 8th graders came up with a 35-11-2 basic-proficient-advanced split on this international comparison, and those in the Philippines came up with 10-1-0). It puts the US squarely in a cohort with other nations such as Finland, England and New Zealand.
However, Americans seldom like to view themselves as being mediocre. The true stars on this international comparison are, no surprise, the industrialized Asian nations. Singapore's split is 96-73-34, South Korea's is 93-65-26, Hong Kong's is 94-64-23, Japan's is 92-61-24, and Chinese Taipei (which I understand to be the politically neutral name for "Taiwan") posts 87-61-31. Interestingly, the Flemish part of Belgium is fairly close to the Asian tigers, posting an 88-51-15 split. You can see the whole report here.
I think there are two key take-aways from this analysis. Many Americans know we have a problem with educating our most disadvantaged students. They still believe, however, that our top quarter of students is doing pretty well. This comparison shows that to be completely false. The top quarter of American 8th graders is equivalent to the "top" three-quarters of Singaporean students. Six times the proportion of Singaporean students test at the advanced level, compared with American students. Even the folks in Flanders are managing to educate two-and-a-half times the proportion of students to the advanced level as here in the U.S. There is no reason the top quarter of American students can't be educated to the advanced level, defined as being able to generalize and synthesize concepts and principles in the key mathematical areas (such as statistics and probability, algebra and functions, etc.) The fact that only 6% of American 8th graders score at this level shows that American schools are failing to challenge their top students. This is a problem, since knowing how to generalize and synthesize are key skills for competing in the knowledge economy, and given the state of American high schools, it's unlikely that kids who aren't figuring these things out in 8th grade will get much better at them later on.
Second, if we're serious about raising mathematical achievement, we need to look at what these Asian countries are doing. This isn't a new idea; periodically, some school district tries to implement "Singapore Math" or what have you. But in education, as in any social science field, it is difficult to separate out which factor works. Perhaps a certain kind of instruction is key, or perhaps Singaporean students watch a lot less television. We'll examine studies of Singapore math in some coming Gifted Exchange posts to see what people have come up with.