Failing the International Test

Freedom Politics, August 31, 2009

American students lag behind most of their international counterparts in math achievement, according to recent analysis from the U.S. Department of Education. In the face of this bad news, however, state and federal policymakers continue to push government-centered “solutions” destined to make matters worse.

According to the federal analysis, U.S. 15-year-olds placed in the bottom quarter in math performance on the Program for International Student Assessment, sponsored by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). According to the analysis, “Fifteen-year-old students in 23 out of the 29 other participating OECD-member countries outperformed their U.S. peers.”

The abysmal math performance of U.S. students cannot be attributed only to low-income students in inner cities or poor rural areas. On the National Assessment of Educational Progress, administered in most states, almost six out of 10 non-poor eighth graders tested below the proficient mark in mathematics. Indeed, at many public schools in well-to-do neighborhoods, students are scoring at shockingly low levels in math.

For example, in Southern California’s famous bastion of wealth, almost 60 percent of Beverly Hills High students who took the 2008 state geometry test, and a majority those who took the algebra 2 test, failed to score at the proficient level. A few miles away in glitzy Malibu, an appalling three out of four Malibu High students taking the geometry and algebra 2 exams failed to reach proficiency. Confronted with a sea of math illiteracy, state and federal policymakers are proposing a number of sure-to-fail proposals.

Some lawmakers have adopted the surrender approach: if students are not doing well in math then simply make them take less math. In Michigan, the House Education Committee has recently passed a bill that removes the requirement that high school students take and pass geometry and algebra 2 courses. Instead, the bill would allow students to replace these math classes with vocational courses. The full Michigan Senate has passed a similar bill. Waving the white flag may make things easier for the adults who run the public schools, but it sure won’t equip American students to catch up to the foreign students packing high-tech departments in universities overseas and in this country.

Other officials have adopted a get-tough stance. U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan called the federal analysis a “wake-up call that our students are treading the waters of academic achievement while other countries’ students are swimming faster and farther.” Duncan then used the analysis as an opportunity to push for national academic standards. Duncan, along with a growing number of policymakers, believes that national standards are needed because state standards range from rigorous to weak.

Centralizing standards-making in Washington, however, will isolate the process from parents. Worse, it will guarantee that powerful special-interest lobbies like the national teacher unions will wield inordinate influence, and ensure that any adopted standards end up nationalizing education. Worse, national standards will give only an illusion of accountability. Few schools have been penalized for poor performance under the federal No Child Left Behind Act or for failure to meet state standards, so it is unlikely that national standards will force bad schools to improve quickly and significantly.

Instead of trying to figure out different ways to re-package government-run failure factories, it is time to give all parents, regardless of income, a ticket out of a system that has proven impervious to real improvement. If we want children to master mathematics, then give them a voucher or some other choice instrument that will allow them to choose a private school that will provide a quality education. Already tens of thousands of parents pay out of pocket for Kumon, Sylvan and other private afterschool providers to teach their children the math they aren’t learning in the public schools.

Everybody agrees that math education in this country is in sad shape. Why should we rely on the same people who created this situation to fix it? It simply doesn’t add up.

Lance T. Izumi is Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies at the Pacific Research Institute

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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