Paris: School students in US think they are just great at mathematics: but by the age of 14 they are two years behind the level in other industrialized countries and overall come 24th in a class of 29.
Causes are perplexing,though the central factor is a prevailing climate of low school standards, low expectations and not enough exams to assess, evaluate and hone student performance.
According to a survey carried out by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development which tracked underlying policies and trends in the US economy, against a background of recent warnings that emerging countries like China and India, are producing more engineers than US, findings have ruffled a few feathers, most of all teachers of Maths in the US.
OECD stressed that the higher education system is still a world leader and that overall spending on education is high. But it is damning in its analysis of school standards. “A country’s ability to compete in an ever more integrated economy depends crucially on a highly educated workforce. However the United States has lost its leading position. Test scores at the compulsory level are at or below the OECD average and lag behind those in many other major economies.”
But US school students think they are tops in math, a benchmark subject. Surveys show that they have a high opinion of their capabilities, expressing greater confidence than students at a more advanced level in other countries, offering comments such as: “I understand even the most difficult work,” or “I learn mathematics quickly,” or “mathematics is one of my best subjects.”
US school students “rank 24th out of 29 OECD countries in mathematics performance.By the middle grades, the top achieving countries ... begin the transition to the study of algebra ... geometry and even in some cases, basic trogonometry. By the end of the eighth grade in these countries children have mostly completed US high school courses in algebra 1 and geometry.
“By contrast, most US students are destined to mostly continue the study of arithmetic. In fact, we estimate that at the end of eighth grade (about age 14) US students are some two or more years behind their counterparts around the world.”
Part of the explanation, the OECD suggests, is that not only have standards “been lowered to accommodate low performance” but have also been “lowered by more than student ability warranted.”
The “astonishing self confidence” expressed by US school students “also suggests standards are lax,” the report said. One reason why US students perform worse than their international counterparts seems to be that they are not being challenged.” Another explanation was that in the US there was no school-leaving exam based on a set curriculum. Another factor is the absence of any control by the national government over the curriculum or exams.
The underlying weaknesses have roots going back decades, since Congress took steps in 1964 to address weak performance in schools. “For years, the US high school diploma has been criticized for being little more than an attendance certificate, as states rarely required students to pass a central exam as a condition of graduation.
By contrast, “US system of higher education is widely seen to be the best in the world but “in some areas other countries are overtaking.” A generation ago,US had the highest rate of higher education in OECD and it ranks eighth even though in 2003 it spent 2.9% of GDP in this field, about twice the OECD average.
Spending per student on higher education was $19,500 compared with an OECD average of $7,800. Most of the difference reflected high US incomes and the average tuition fee of $8,700 a year was nearly five times the OECD average of $1,800.