Colorado and Most Other States Face Plenty of Catching Up in Advanced Math

Not everyone can be super-smart at math, but a brand new Harvard study (PDF) by Paul Peterson, Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann shows how virtually every state in the USA is not educating enough top-flight math performers. If you look at the 56 nations who take the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), 30 do better than America in the share of students who rank advanced in math. Even our best state doesn’t crack the top 10 or 15. Can’t we be more competitive?

The neat part of the Harvard study is seeing how individual states stack up against the other PISA-tested nations. (The authors found a valid way to compare results on our NAEP test with PISA.) Top-ranking Massachusetts, where 11.6 percent of 8th-graders (and 12.4 percent of white 8th-graders) rate as advanced in math, comes in behind 16 entire nations. That includes not only Taiwan, Korea and Finland, but also our neighbors to the north: Canada! Even if you include only the advanced math rate among students with a college-educated parent, seven other nations still outperform Massachusetts.

What about Colorado, though?

No matter how you look at it — all students, white students or students of a college-educated parent — Colorado comes in just above the national average. If you look at all students, our performance most closely mirrors Lithuania. If you look at just white students, our closest peer is Poland. And even if you only take children of a college-educated parent in Colorado, we fall behind 18 nations — including Liechtenstein, Japan, Macao and Slovenia.

Another interesting tidbit. While there is a somewhat strong correlation between a state’s income level and the share of advanced math performers, a couple states broke the trend. South Carolina rates among the highest states, while California falls below the national average on all measures. Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe we should look more closely at what they’re doing.

Following up on his report today at the Education Next blog, Paul Peterson makes an excellent case for expanding use of online delivery systems to bring more students closer to high-quality math instruction. On this point it seems there should be no debate. Since 1996 USA students have gained very slowly on the NAEP math test, but still leaving us well behind. (Though the Flypaper blog’s Mike Petrilli gives it another promising perspective.) Let’s remember our students are competing with students from other nations and give them the best shot possible at success.