In Vancouver last winter, the United States proved its competitive spirit by winning more medals—gold, silver, and bronze—at the Winter Olympic Games than any other country, although the German member of our research team insists on pointing out that Canada and Germany both won more gold medals than the United
States. But if there is some dispute about which Olympic medals to count, there is no question about American math performance: the United States does not deserve even a paper medal.
Maintaining our productivity as a nation depends importantly on developing a highly qualified cadre of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and other professionals. To realize that objective requires a system of schooling that produces students with advanced math and science skills. To see how well schools in the United States do at producing high-achieving math students, we compared the percentage of U.S. students in the high-school graduating Class of 2009 with advanced skills in mathematics to percentages of similarly high achievers in other countries.
Unfortunately, we found that the percentage of students in the U.S. Class of 2009 who were highly accomplished in math is well below that of most countries with which the United States generally compares itself. No fewer than 30 of the 56 other countries that participated in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) math test, including most of the world’s industrialized nations, had a larger percentage of students who scored at the international equivalent of the advanced level on our own National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. Moreover, while the percentage of students scoring at the advanced level on NAEP varies considerably among the 50 states, not even the best state does well in international comparison. A 2005 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Rising Above the Gathering Storm, succinctly put the issue into perspective: “Although many people assume that the United States will always be a world leader in science and technology, this may not continue to be the case inasmuch as great minds and ideas exist throughout the world.”