Lagging the World
As the modern world grows smaller, flatter, and more competitive, the achievement of American students must be measured not only against national standards, but also against international ones. Work and jobs quickly shift around the globe to whoever can perform them at the highest quality and the lowest price. Distance, language, and politics—factors that once limited international economic integration—have diminished greatly in importance, and the Internet has enabled the instantaneous sharing and internationalization of work. It is now common in manufacturing, for example, for products to be assembled of components that have been produced in multiple nations around the world. Nations that once did not consume what was produced in the West, or produce anything the West would consume—nations such as China, India, and the former Soviet Union, as well as countries throughout Eastern Europe and much of the Middle East—now participate fully in a much larger and dynamic world economy than existed just a generation ago.
These developments stand to enrich our children's lives culturally, socially, intellectually, and aesthetically, as more and different people share with one another their ideas, traditions, and accomplishments. These developments also have the potential to improve the living standards of the next generation of Americans. A larger world economy means more markets for the goods and services Americans produce. It means a larger economic pie for everyone to divide. But the slice America's young people will receive depends heavily on the knowledge and skills they bring to the global marketplace. The greatest economic returns will go to the best educated, to those who can keep pace with rapid technological change, to those who can create the industries that have not even been thought of today.17
The jobs that once supported the American middle class required only a high school education. These jobs began moving overseas twenty to thirty years ago, and they will continue to do so. Over the last seventy-five years the United States doubled the percentage of adults that completed high school and tripled the percentage that earned a college degree. This progress helped fuel the rise of domestic living standards—but it is not nearly enough to meet the challenges of the more competitive, technologically driven world the nation is now faced with. Education is more crucial than ever, and a "basic" education no longer cuts it. The issue, increasingly, is how well America's children—and therefore its future workers—compare to their counterparts in other nations around the globe.18
On this front, the news is hardly uplifting. The most recent data, from the Program for International Assessment (PISA) in 2006, measures the achievement of fifteen-year-old students in 30 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations (which, like the United States, are among the more economically advanced) and 28 non-OECD nations (which tend to be poorer). The most meaningful comparisons, of course, are between the United States and other OECD nations, and what they reveal is unsettling: U.S. students ranked 21st out of 30 OECD nations in science, and 25th out of 30 in math—well below the international average of advanced nations.19 Their achievement was most comparable to students in Iceland, the Slovak Republic, Spain, and Portugal. These results are consistent with the 2003 PISA exam, which showed that the United States ranked 18th out of 28 OECD nations in science and 23rd out of 28 in math.20
The low scores are not due to a more democratic mix of students in the United States. The fact is, America's very best students are not competitive either. Compared to students at the 95th percentile of their respective test score distributions, America's top students ranked 13th out of 30 OECD nations on the PISA 2006 science test. If the focus is instead on American students with economic advantages—those from families high in socioeconomic status (SES)—performance is even more mediocre: these advantaged American students ranked 18th out of 30 compared to high SES students internationally.
On the other side of the ledger, one might still hope that America's most disadvantaged students would not rank among the lowest in the world. The United States, after all, has historically been a leader in extending free public education to every child regardless of circumstance. Unfortunately, PISA 2006 shows that America's low SES students rank 24th in science relative to low SES students in 30 OECD nations. It also points up one statistic on which the United States is among the world "leaders": the difference in achievement between high and low SES students. The achievement gap in the United States is the 4th largest of the 30 OECD nations studied.21 Although lamentable, this is not so surprising given what we know about NAEP scores and their enormous and persistent differences across ethnic groups.
While PISA studies fifteen-year-olds, other programs have carried out international comparisons of younger students. The best-known of these is the Trends in International Math and Science Study (TIMMS), whose most recent results are for 2007.22 As we might expect, having seen the patterns in domestic NAEP scores, America's younger kids generally seem to do better against international competition than the older kids do. The rankings are less clear than they might appear, however, because the countries included in these studies are quite different. The PISA studies are actually carried out under the aegis of OECD itself, so all 30 OECD countries participate. But TIMMS is carried out by another organization (the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement, known as the IEA), and in 2007 many of the OECD countries did not participate. Just 11 of them took part in the eighth-grade exam, and 15 in the fourth-grade exam. Many of the countries that chose not to participate in 2007—for example, Korea (for fourth grade), Finland, Canada, and Switzerland—are countries that, judging by other exam outcomes, may well have scored ahead of the United States on TIMMS had they taken the test.
The ray of sunshine in the TIMMS 2007 exam is that the nation's fourth graders are doing pretty well by international standards. On the fourth-grade science exam, the United States ranked 3rd out of the 15 OECD countries that participated—a very decent performance. Yet on the eighth-grade science exam, the United States didn't do as well, ranking 6th out of 11 OECD countries, right in the middle of the pack. And more important, these rankings are not the same as ranking 3rd or 6th out of the full set of 30 OECD countries, because some of the nonparticipating countries probably would have outscored the United States had they taken the test. Indeed, if we simply include in these comparisons four economically developed countries that took the test but are not members of OECD—Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Russia—the bloom comes off the rose by a good bit. With this adjustment, the U.S. ranking for fourth-grade science is 7th out of 19 advanced nations, and its ranking for eighth-grade science is 10th out of 15.
The TIMMS math results for 2007 are comparable. On the fourth-grade exam, the United States ranked 4th out of the 15 participating OECD countries; but if Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Russia are included, the United States ranking drops to 8th out of 19. The eighth graders, as we've come to expect, do somewhat worse. At this level, the United States ranked 5th out of the 11 participating OECD nations, and 9th out of 15 when the other four advanced nations are included in the comparisons. If the United States hopes to maintain its leadership role in the world economy during the coming century, these sorts of middling outcomes in math—and in science as well—do not bode well. They are not bad. They are just not the foundation on which true economic leadership can be sustained.
The PISA 2006 and TIMMS 2007 exams are but two of many international tests that have been administered over the years. Recent research by Stanford economist Eric Hanushek and associates has "normalized" the various international exams to a common scale so that they can more readily be aggregated to yield a composite picture of international performance over time. Their analysis shows that, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, the United States ranked poorly compared to other economically advanced nations—and that, although the United States has improved its test scores over the years, so have most other advanced nations. The United States continues to rank well down in the pack. Its aggregated scores during the 2000s put it at 17th in a group of 25 OECD countries in the study.23
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