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The American psyche is prone to fits of fear that we are falling behind the world. In reality however, we’ve concluded that American students outperform their parents by a significant amount.

The nation’s schools are putting more American students through the rigors of higher math than ever before.

In 1986 27 percent of all 17 year-old high school students performed at the 300 level or better in intermediate algebra. By 2004 51 percent of 17 year-old students did.

But even if that’s true, then surely we must be falling behind the rest of the world, right? Something has to be wrong with our education system. Politicians and the media are constantly telling us that the system is broken.

What is TIMMS?

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) 2003 is the third comparison of mathematics and science achievement carried out since 1995 by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). In 2003, 46 countries participated in TIMSS. Read the full report here.

I’m going to focus solely on the eighth graders. Fourth graders will eventually become eighth graders, right? If American children are doing all right by eighth grade then the reality is that they are doing fine in fourth grade. So, how do America’s eighth graders compare to the rest of the world?

Unlike the annual tests that are given to most American school-children, TIMMS is designed to merely be a representative sample of all American schools. Approximately 10,000 students take the TIMMS test every couple of years.

Overall Performance

Overall, the average American eighth grader falls into what must be considered a second tier of mathematics and scientific performance behind global leaders, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and to a lesser extent, Belgium, Netherlands and Hungary. American eighth graders perform at a similar level to Russian, Slovak, Latvian, Australian, Lithuanian and Swedish children.

What About the Best Students?

The overall report looks less bleak if you break down the statistics and examine the scores in recognition of the structural socio-economic problems present in the American education system. Significantly, students in schools where less than ten percent of the student population receive free school lunches, perform fairly close to the level of the average student in the four Asian countries which are perennially at the top of the TIMMS.

The Problem is Poverty

Even in schools where as much as 25% of the student population receives free lunches, students perform on par with Belgians and the Dutch. Where the poverty level is between 25-50%, students perform on a similar level to the average American eighth grader. As you descend further down the socio-economic ladder however, the source of American school underachievement becomes clear. Where the poverty level is between 50-75%, students perform on a similar level to the average Bulgarian student. Where the poverty level is over 75%, students perform worse than children in Cyprus and barely above the level of Iranian students.

Progress is Being Made

Even the poorly performing American students have made significant strides made over the last decade or so however.

Both Black and Hispanic eighth-grade students in the United States demonstrated improvement in mathematics achievement between 1995 and 2003 (figure 2 and table C11 in appendix C). In 1995, U.S. Black eighth-grade students scored 419 in mathematics, on average. This improved to 448, on average, in 2003. Likewise, in 1995, U.S. Hispanic eighth-grade students scored 443 in mathematics, on average, improving to an average score of 465 in 2003.

Both Black and Hispanic eighth-grade students in the United States demonstrated improvement in their average science achievement between 1995 and 2003, and between 1999 and 2003 (figure 4 and table C20 in appendix C). In 1995, U.S. Black eighth-grade students scored 422 in science, on average. This improved to an average of 463 in 2003. U.S. Hispanic eighth grade students scored 446 in science in 1995, on average, improving to an average score of 482 in 2003.

As a result of improvements in the average science achievement of Black and Hispanic eighth graders, the achievement gap between White and Black eighth-graders narrowed from 122 score points in 1995 to 89 score points in 2003, and the achievement gap between White and Hispanic eighth-grade students narrowed from 98 points in 1995 to 70 points in 2003.

What About Science?

Science results are similar to those in math.


Obviously, I’m not arguing that the American education system and American society don’t have structural deficiencies that are born by, primarily, poor minorities. What these results show however is that the majority of American schools are not really under-performing the world by that much, if at all. As compared to the world, the United States still does a top notch job at educating the bulk of its children. The report underscores however the fact that, compared to the world, a significant chunk of the American student populace is being left behind.

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