Skip to content Skip to navigation

U.S. Students from Educated Families Lag in International Tests

Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, Ludger Woessmann
Published Date: 
Fall 2014
Education Next
pp. 8-18

“The big picture of U.S. performance on the 2012 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) is straightforward and stark: It is a picture of educational stagnation…. Fifteen-year olds in the U.S. today are average in science and reading literacy, and below average in mathematics, compared to their counterparts in [other industrialized] countries.”

U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan spoke these grim words on the bleak December day in late 2013 when the international tests in math, science, and literacy were released. No less disconcerting was the secretary’s warning that the nation’s educational problems are not limited to certain groups or specific places. The “educational challenge in America is not just about poor kids in poor neighborhoods,” he said. “It’s about many kids in many neighborhoods. The [test] results underscore that educational shortcomings in the United States are not just the problems of other people’s children.”

In making his comments, Secretary Duncan challenged those who cling to an old belief that the nation’s educational challenges are confined to its inner cities. Most affluent Americans remain optimistic about the schools in their local community. In 2011, Education Next asked a representative sample to evaluate both the nation’s schools and those in their own community. The affluent were especially dubious about the nation’s schools—only 15 percent conceded them an A or a B. Yet 54 percent gave their local schools one of the two top ratings.

Public opinion is split on how well the nation’s schools educate students of different abilities. In 2013 Education Next asked the public whether local schools did a good job of teaching talented students. Seventy-three percent said the local schools did “somewhat” or “extremely” well at the task, as compared to only 45 percent who thought that was true of their capacity to teach the less-talented.

To see whether this optimistic assessment of the nation’s ability to teach the more able student is correct, we draw upon the latest tests of student achievement and find that, as Secretary Duncan has said, the nation’s “educational shortcomings” are not just the problems of the other person’s child. We have given special attention to math performance because math appears to be the subject in which accomplishment is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s economic well-being.

When viewed from a global perspective, U.S. schools seem to do as badly teaching those from better-educated families as they do teaching those from less well educated families. Overall, the U.S. proficiency rate in math (35 percent) places the country at the 27th rank among the 34 OECD countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). That ranking is somewhat lower for students from advantaged backgrounds (28th) than for those from disadvantaged ones (20th).

There are examples of excellence. The six states with high proficiency rates (58 to 62 percent) among students from families with high levels of parental education rank among the OECD top 13 on this measure. But students from these states are a small portion of the U.S. student population, and other states rank much lower down the international list. In many places, students from highly educated families are performing well below the OECD average for similarly advantaged students.

There can be little doubt that education shortcomings in the United States spread well beyond the corridors of the inner city or the confines of low-income neighborhoods where many parents lack a high school diploma. While bright spots can be identified—particularly in some states along the country’s northern tier—the overall picture is distressing to those concerned about the potential evolution of economic well-being of the United States in the 21st century.