In Math Performance, California Is Portugal

Americans, when confronted with test scores showing students in other countries doing better than our own, often comfort ourselves by saying that our country is extraordinarily diverse and that, at the top, our education system is superior.

A new report from researchers at Harvard, Stanford and the University of Munich pokes holes in that theory.

Using data from an international math test used in 57 countries, including most of the world's industrialized nations, the researchers compared each American state against the other countries as if it were a country. The key data point was the percentage of students in the high school graduating class of 2009 that scored at the international equivalent of the advanced level.

If California were a country, it would be 34th on that list -- slightly worse than the middle of the pack. Our record at producing top students in math is akin to that of Portugal, and similar to the record in Israel and Italy. Only 4.5 percent of our students are performing in math at what is considered an advanced level internationally.

Here's are some of the countries that have more than TWICE as many advanced math students, percentage-wise, than California: Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Liechtenstein, New Zealand, the Czech Republic, Japan, Canada, Macao-China, Australia, Germany and Austria.

The researchers used math because, unlike language, it's the same across countries. And because, as they explain, "We give special attention to math performance because math appears to be the subject in which accomplishment in secondary school is particularly significant for both an individual’s and a country’s economic well-being. Existing research, though not conclusive, indicates that math skills better predict future earnings and other economic outcomes than other skills learned in high school."

Learn more about the report here.

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