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Misreading the Numbers

One of the “facts” about American education that is repeated often by politicians and education “experts” is that our students are pretty lousy compared to the rest of the world when it comes to learning math and science.

However, according to one writer in Business Week, there’s more to that judgement than just simple statistics.

Yet a new report by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, tells a different story. The report disproves many confident pronouncements about the alleged weaknesses and failures of the U.S. education system. This data will certainly be examined by both sides in the debate over highly skilled workers and immigration. The argument by Microsoft, Google, Intel, and others is that there are not enough tech workers in the U.S.

The authors of the report, the Urban Institute’s Hal Salzman and Georgetown University professor Lindsay Lowell, show that math, science, and reading test scores at the primary and secondary level have increased over the past two decades, and U.S. students are now close to the top of international rankings. Perhaps just as surprising, the report finds that our education system actually produces more science and engineering graduates than the market demands.

So, why are all these politicians and business leaders reading the same test scores and getting different conclusions? According to the lead researcher, they are misinterpreting the data.

In fact, the few countries that place higher than the U.S. are generally small nations, and few of these rank consistently high across all grades, subjects, and years tested. Moreover, he says, serious methodological flaws, such as different test populations, and other limitations preclude drawing any meaningful comparison of school systems between countries.

One study is not enough to put to rest the popular myth that all US students rank at the bottom of the international barrel.

And it certainly lead anyone to the conclusion that we don’t need to improve math and science education in this country.

But this is just one more reminder that there’s much more to learning than scores on a standardized test.

education, math, science, myths


  1. Dave

    It’s interesting that industry seems to ask for more tech grads and researchers say that US schools are producing more of them than there is demand for. I think there’s a disconnect as to specifically what is wanted: tech job postings seem to be either very low paying and part-time gigs or claim to require silly levels of qualification in numerous different technologies. Graduates are looking to get compensated fairly for their work instead of “paying their dues” by getting under-compensated for several years. How does a grad put in their resume that they know programming languages X,Y, and Z, but feel comfortable learning whatever is needed for a job…and be taken seriously?

  2. Zach

    I found this article interesting because I have failed to see how “experts” can say that the United States is performing poorly in their education system compared to the rest of the world. At least in the area around me, I have seen great scores on standardized tests by my school district and the surrounding districts, and they only seem to keep improving. I also found it interesting that we are turning out more people with scientific and engineering degrees than there is a need for, but Dave makes a good point that it might be a mismatch of skills or people not wanting to put in the time at lower-paying jobs. Whatever the case, I find it interesting that people would be misinterpreting the scores, and we would actually be ranking high compared to other countries at least in an overall sense. But standardized tests do not tell the whole story either, so hopefully we can continue to improve on the tests as well as improving in the actual research fields.

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