American achievement in international perspective
The latest results from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) garnered all the usual headlines about America’s lackluster performance and the rise of competitor nations. And to be sure, the findings—that America’s fifteen-year-olds perform in the middle of the pack in both reading and math—are disconcerting for a nation that considers itself an international leader and prides itself on home-grown innovation, intellect, and opportunity.
But the headlines—and national averages—don’t tell the whole story. Particularly among other industrialized and advanced nations, the United States still has the upper hand in one critical measure: size. With over 300 million people, the U.S. ranks as the third most populous country in the world, behind China and India. Sure, Finland—a country of 5 million people, barely more than live in Los Angeles—might produce more high-achieving students per capita than any other nation on earth. But is it reasonable to worry that high-achieving Finns will flood the international job market to the exclusion of high-achieving Americans? In terms of human-capital output, where does America stand among the world’s advanced nations?
Fordham’s new report, American Achievement in International Perspective, offers some insight. The report looks at international achievement on the 2009 PISA among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), analyzing the data in three ways: First, it ranks proficiency rates to find the proportions of each country that are high- or low-achieving. Then, it ranks countries by raw numbers of high- and low-achievers. Finally, it examines how America’s main racial groups stack up.
The findings? As expected, proportionally, the United States inspires minimal confidence: Per capita, we produce fewer high achievers and more low achievers than many countries typically praised for their education systems.
But in comparing raw numbers the data shine more brightly on the United States. Despite higher proportions of strong performance, other OECD countries are no match for the sheer volume of U.S. high achievers. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more high achievers than France, Germany, and the United Kingdom combined. In reading, we produce more high achievers than Japan and Korea combined. (See Figure 3.)
These numbers are key to understanding why an average-performing country like the United States can still dominate international job placements, admissions to prestigious universities, and scientific prizes.
Of course, the same is true at the other end of the spectrum. In raw numbers, the United States produces far more low-achieving students than any other OECD nation, including even two developing economies, Mexico and Turkey. In both reading and math, the U.S. produces more low achievers than France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the United Kingdom combined.
When the data are sorted by race, further noteworthy facts emerge. Proportionally, Asian American students boast the largest share of top readers in the OECD, and white Americans are bested only by Finns and New Zealanders. Compare that to black American students, of whom approximately 50 percent are low-achieving in math—a higher proportion than is found in any OECD country save Chile and Mexico. In reading, only Mexico does worse.
In raw numbers, however, high-achieving black American readers outnumber high-achieving readers in each of twenty-three OECD countries, including Belgium, Finland, and New Zealand. In both reading and math, the United States produces a larger population of high-achieving Hispanic students than high-achieving Asian students. To further complicate the debate, in both reading and math, the U.S. produces about the same number of low-achieving white students as low-achieving black students.
What to make of these analyses? For one, it’s obvious that America’s size alone makes it the major player at both ends of the achievement spectrum: Our top students outnumber the high achievers of other advanced nations by a hefty margin—but so do our worst performers outnumber their low-performing peers
The large U.S. output of high-achieving students also helps ensure that Americans maintain a solid foothold in top universities and top jobs internationally. But our large number of low-achieving students is a critical issue: It’s hard to imagine the U.S. maintaining its economic strength—or social cohesion—while miseducating such a large number of its youth.
Finally, the mile-wide chasm that is our own domestic achievement gap cannot be denied. America’s white and Asian students perform among the world’s best; our black and Hispanic students are battling it out with the OECD’s worst. Still, these analyses identify an interesting wrinkle, and perhaps a ray of hope: In raw numbers, at least, our high-achieving Hispanic and black American students outnumber the high achievers of several other countries. At the least, this indicates that those many individuals will have seats at the international table—on prestigious college campuses, in boardrooms, and in laboratories. It’s a start.
Category: Additional Topics
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