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How Do U.S. Students Rank Internationally?

Harvard University has released a fascinating new report conducted by the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Government and Education Next. The report is called "Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance,” and presents some very intriguing finds. The report, which charts the progress of the United States in closing the international education gap, estimates the learning gains of students in the United States and 48 other countries from 1995 to 2009. In addition, the study examines changes in student performance in 41 states within the United States between 1992 and 2011.

All data is provided by results from one series of U.S. standardized tests and three series of international standardized tests. The conclusions are drawn from assessments of student performance in math, science and reading, from test scores of students in 4th or 8th grade (ages 9 to 10 or 14 to 15). According to the report, “The gains within the United States have been middling, not stellar. While 24 countries trail the U.S. rate of improvement, another 24 countries appear to be improving at a faster rate. Nor is U.S. progress sufficiently rapid to allow it to catch up with the leaders of the industrialized world.”

The Findings

The report begins with an iteration of another 2010 report that found only six percent of U.S. students to be demonstrating proficiency in advanced mathematics — placing us behind 30 other countries. When it comes to regular mathematics, only 32 percent of 8th graders were proficient, ranking us at 32nd internationally. Harvard’s report finds that, on average, standardized test scores in the United States improve annually at a rate of 1.6 percent of a standard deviation — compared to an annual rate above 4 percent above the standard deviation in countries like Latvia, Chile and Brazil. Portugal, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia, Columbia and Lithuania experience similar improvements. All in all, around 24 countries appear to be doing better than the United States. The average American would place the United States at 18th when guessing the country’s ranking in math performance — not very off from its actual ranking.

Within the United States, certain states improve at faster rates than others, a variation that is not very different from the variation in performance among international countries. The states with the largest gains improved at a rate of two to three times the rate of those states with the smallest gains. The top 10 states that have seen the largest rate of improvement since 1992 are Maryland, Florida, Delaware, Massachusetts, Louisiana, South Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky, Arkansas and Virginia. The study reports the lowest five performing states to be Iowa, Maine, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Nebraska. Due to states that did not participate in early assessments, data is not available for nine states: Alaska, Illinois, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington.

From the Report "Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance"

The Implications

The report draws some interesting conclusions from the data. It analyzes the possible causes for the results and the disparities in student performance, both abroad and at home. Interestingly enough, it finds no evidence to support the theory that an increase in spending has any influence on student performance, as many states that spend a lot on education exhibited as high performance improvement rates as states that do not spend as much. Bottom line: Throwing money at the problem does not fix it. So what does?

The report touches upon two theories for the disparities, one of which is called the “catch-up theory.” The report says that, “according to a perspective that we shall label ‘catch-up theory,' growth in student performance is easier for those political jurisdictions originally performing at a low level than for those originally performing at higher levels. Lower-performing systems may be able to copy existing approaches at lower cost than high-performing systems can innovate.” The second theory, the “building-on-strength theory,” posits that "high-performing school systems find it relatively easy to build on their past achievements, while low-performing systems may struggle to acquire the human capital needed to improve. If that is generally the case, then the education gap among nations and among states should steadily widen over time.”

The report concludes with a detailed analysis of education spending that explores its possible implications for either of these theories, as well as a summary of the political climate of student achievement. You can access the full report here for an in-depth, detailed exploration of the international achievement gap.