GSE News

Understanding the International Horse Race

November 17, 2008 - Analysts typically bemoan the performance of American kids when it comes to international comparisons of academic achievement.

Experts – everyone from the National Science Foundation, the National Mathematical Society, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the U.S. Congress, and the national media – claim that American students have fallen far behind their international peers. And if that trend continues, we are warned, the U.S. may soon lose its competitive edge.

But are American students really at the back of the pack? When Penn GSE Professor Ed Boe looked at the data, he found a far more nuanced – and brighter – picture.

With Sujie Shin, Boe dug deep into the data. Rather than settling on a narrow band of studies that focused only on math and science, they examined the results of all the major international achievement surveys conducted from 1991 through 2001 in four subjects and at three grade levels.

What they found challenges the conventional wisdom. American students performed as well as, or better than, over 75 percent of their peers in other industrialized nations, with only 19 percent posting higher scores. In science, reading, and civics, American students outperformed their foreign peers. It was only in mathematics that the homegrown kids scored somewhat below the average (44 percent of the competition was significantly higher than the U.S., 19 percent lower, and 37 percent on par).

Critics also charge that while American students come strong out of the gate, by the time they graduate from high school, they're bringing up the rear. One analysis even argues that, by the end of high school, the U.S. outperforms only Lithuania, Cyprus, and South Africa.

Again, Boe and Shin find a more complicated picture. American students do indeed start strong – with only 14 percent of fourth-graders in other industrialized nations scoring higher. By the middle school, the U.S. performance has declined to average, and that downward trend continues into the secondary-school years. But even so, only about 30 percent of industrialized nations are outperforming America during these grades.

"Viewed this way," Boe and Shin write, "the aggregated results make clear that the U.S. did not perform 'poorly' at the secondary level. Instead, the U.S. performed somewhat below average at this level...."

So why the alarm about the U.S. losing ground in academic achievement?

Among the factors contributing to the hysteria, Boe suggests a general misunderstanding of comparative statistics, headline-driven reporting, ideological interpretations of the data, and a "We're Number One" mentality.

Of the last, Boe observes, "The U.S. is not 'first in the industrialized world' in minimizing the percentage of its population living in poverty or in minimizing its infant mortality rate. So why should anyone expect the U.S. to be first in the world in educational attainment? There is, after all, abundant evidence that these types of social indicators are strongly associated with educational achievement."

For more about Boe and Shin's work, including a look at how we stack up against the other G7 nations and how minority students are faring, click here.

For Dr. Boe's profile, click here.  For more about Dr. Boe's research, click here.