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Can the US compete if only 32 percent of its students are proficient in math?

Among the top-scoring places in the world that participated in a recent exam, math proficiency of 15-year-olds was well above 50 percent. One US state, Massachusetts, cleared that mark, barely.

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The variability in where the states rank stands out to Michael Shaughnessy, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) in Reston, Va. Part of the problem, he says, is “access and opportunity for kids in math and science – that it’s not a level playing field throughout the country.”

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While it won’t be a “quick fix,” Mr. Shaughnessy says, one promising movement to help close those gaps is that 45 states have signed on to new Common Core Standards, which raise expectations in both math and reading and incorporate more skills to ensure that high-schoolers graduate ready for college-level work.

Massachusetts is one of just a few states whose own proficiency standards already are as high as NAEP’s, and its good showing internationally suggests that if all states were able to do what Massachusetts does, the US wouldn’t have a serious problem, Peterson said.

NCTM has been working with educators around the country to change how math is taught – to make it more interactive and keep students’ interest. It also supports efforts to change the cultural attitude in the US “that it’s OK not to be good at mathematics,” Shaughnessy says.

In countries that outrank the US, both math and teaching are generally more respected, and higher stakes are often attached to students’ math abilities (such as whether they will be able to continue their education).

Some critics say such comparisons between countries aren’t particularly useful, especially given the level of ethnic and economic diversity in American schools. But the authors of this report break out statistics to support their view that such diversity doesn’t explain away the poor US ranking.

When looking at the performance of only the white students in the US, for instance, the full samples of students in 16 countries still did better. And US students who have at least one parent with a college degree were outperformed by 13 countries.

The economic stakes of educational improvement have been projected in previous reports by two authors of the current report, Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford and Ludger Woessmann of the University of Munich. Their work suggests that raising math proficiency rates to the level of Canada or Korea would eventually increase annual GDP growth rates by 30 to 50 percent.

The new report also looks at reading comparisons. The US, with 31 percent of students proficient in reading, ranks 17th. Again, Massachusetts, with 43 percent proficient, is the best-performing state, ranking behind only Shanghai, Korea, Finland, and Hong Kong.

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