AN international ranking of American students points up what educators in the United States have said for years: Schools here won't do better unless social conditions improve.
It also highlights US diversity. Students' performance varied widely from state to state.
US eighth-graders, on average, were less proficient in math than their counterparts in other industrial nations, the Education Department said in a report released Dec. 1. But when it looked at individual states, Iowa, North Dakota, and Minnesota students did just as well as the top-scoring countries. Students in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi performed most poorly.
``We have to address the degree of inequality,'' said Education Undersecretary Marshall Smith. ``We have to get to a point where we have challenge standards for all kids. The more challenging standards we get, the more we're going to reduce the inequities.''
Gaylynn Becker, assistant director of counseling and testing for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction, says students from the top three states perform better than others because they face fewer social adversities.
``They don't have to worry about getting shot when they get to school or coming home from school at night,'' he says.
Becker says children in North Dakota also are more likely to come from stable homes with two-parent families and at least one parent who graduated from college.
The Education Department's report examined for the first time how education in the states stacked up against education in industrialized nations that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Among the countries surveyed, Taiwanese students were at the top, scoring an average 285 out of a possible 500. US students overall scored 262. Only 13-year-olds from Jordan scored lower, at 246.
Some large countries were not included in the rankings, among them Japan. Had they been included, Smith says, the United States would probably still be at the bottom.
Students in North Dakota and Iowa had an average proficiency rating of 283. Those in Washington, D.C., and Mississippi scored 234 and 246, respectively.
Youths with a math proficiency score of 250 can do numerical operations and beginning problem-solving. At level 300, they can do moderately complex procedures.