U.S. Ranked Low in Math Literacy

The biggest, baddest, richest country in the world. That's the way a lot of Americans like to think of the United States. But will it stay that way?

No. Not if a new international report is any indication. It made front-page news everywhere.

In a study of how good 15-year-olds are in math, the "big, bad" USA ranked 24 out of 29 countries. That's behind the Czech Republic. Behind New Zealand. Twenty-fourth out of 29!

That is wack! The study also suggests U.S. public schools, when it comes to math education, have been seriously "out of whack" for a long time.

Math tests were given to more than 5,000 sophomores in the United States, and 250,000 worldwide.

It's not bad enough that the United States ranked near the bottom of the list. What's more disturbing is that our students actually did worse than they did the last time the test was given. The results from the first test embarrassed U.S. educators. They discussed plans to do something radical to improve math studies. Obviously, not much happened, because U.S. kids on the latest test fell behind three more countries: Hungary, Poland and Spain.

If the test had simply asked students to solve an equation, or answer a multiple-choice question, U.S. students would have done OK. But researchers wanted to see how well students could use the math they learned in a real world situation.

One problem presented a graph, which showed the average heights of males and females between the ages of 10 and 20. The students were asked to identify the period in their lives when females are on the average taller than males of the same age, and explain why. The teenagers had to read the graph. They had to interpret it, analyze it and explain their answers in writing. It took critical thinking. That's where American teenagers lost it.

So what's the big deal? Well, if future American workers aren't as educated as workers in Europe and Asia, the United States won't be able to compete in the world economy. If our young people are less educated, they will get fewer jobs, lower-paying jobs, and our whole standard of living might suffer.

Even before this new study came out, there were fears about math achievement. Twelve years ago, Mattel toys released a Teen Talking Barbie doll. One of her recorded sayings was "Math class is tough." It was supposed to be a typical girl comment. There was a national uproar against Mattel for producing a doll for girls only 4 to 7 years old that might make them think it was cool to hate math. The dolls were yanked off the toy shelves and the saying was changed, but not to "I love math."

There was going to be new emphasis in the schools on mathematics, especially for girls. There was talk, many say, but no action. So our teenagers are falling further and further behind.

Which country is going to be the "biggest and baddest" in 20 years? It won't necessarily be the country with the biggest population, the biggest military, or the biggest treasury. It will more likely be the one with the biggest number of "brainiacs."

Source: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development

ScoreRank Average Math Literacy
Finland1 544
South Korea2
New Zealand8
Czech Republic10
Sweden 14
Slovak Republic18
United States24 483
Mexico29 385