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The State of Global Education: How Do American Students Compare?

In his speech at the Republican Convention in June, the second son of the President-elect, Eric Trump, mentioned the “humiliation” of the American education system, which ranked 30th on the planet. While most of us have heard similar statistics before, it is almost always followed by the hint that the eminence of the United States is wearing down and that the prominence of the “once great nation” must be put back on the right track. As you know, Donald Trump even based his whole campaign around that notion.


But even the still-current president has warned in the past that if a particular nation “out-educates us today” will inevitably “out-compete us tomorrow. The administration even used the PISA performance as the main talking point at it push for national testing and teacher accountability.

The Actual Scores

So, how do actually students compare to those around the world? Well, according to the latest PISA survey, American students score somewhere in the mid-range when it comes to math, reading and science. And who has the highest scores in the world – unsurprisingly students from several Asian countries earned the highest scores, once again. However, there is still some hope, because the country as a whole didn’t earn great scores on the tests, a couple of individual states managed to stand out in certain subjects.

Massachusetts, for example, scored much better that the country average in the math test, putting it on par with high-scoring countries like Germany. The test also, is not perfect by any means, as Stanford education professor Martin Carnoy argues, some countries such as South Korea, spent enormous amounts of on preparation. On the other hand, you have countries like Finland, where there are many cultural factors in an ethnically equal and flourishing country.

Historical Facts

While it is true that today, Americans score lower than their foreign counterparts, the big question is – have our scores ever been excellent? In short the answer is, perhaps unsurprisingly – no, but let’s look at some of the facts. Since the first international tests comparisons were recorded around 50 years ago, the US students almost always faired unimpressively. For instance, back in 1964 the First International Mathematics Study put the American Children at the bottom – with 12th graders placing 12 out of 12 and 8th graders 11.

Couple of years later, an International Science study placed American high school seniors 14 out of 19. But the pessimistic narrative we see these days, fully-formed in the 1980s. Two decades later, when the results of Second International Study came out, the public saw headlines complaining that American students “Top Only Third World in Math.”

The Problem of Stagnation

There is, in fact, a good reason why the public has been unsatisfied with these numbers, which Arne Duncan named “educational stagnation.” You see, in the US, people often forget about the underprivileged students who are hiding at the bottom of these scores. Countries with similar scores, like Australia are working hard to help these students, with organizations like Harding Miller Education Foundation, providing the much-needed resources and tools. And as long as the public continues to ignore these children, the test scores are going to remain low.

Some people even question the importance of these results, as a matter of fact, some don’t even have a problem with them at all. For example, the famous NYU researcher Diane Ravitch, wrote a post regarding the latest results, and explained that she prefers to rely on the ambition, character and big dreams of the American people. None of which can actually be analyzed and rated by any standardized tests out there.