How Do American Kids Do In Math? Pretty Well, It Turns Out.

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Earlier this evening I promised more on the TIMSS math test, and now I’m here to deliver. I could pretty easily just copy the full ranking table and consider it a job well done, but there’s a problem with that: a bunch of Asian tigers are always at the top, light years ahead of everyone else. There’s not much point in comparing ourselves to them. Do we really care that we do worse than countries that goad their kids into studying math until their eyes fall out? Likewise, there are lots of poor countries clustered near the bottom. There’s not much point in comparing ourselves to them either. It might make us feel good, but do we really care that we beat out Malaysia and Oman?

Really, what we want to know is how we compare to peer countries. We also want to know if we’re improving over time. So without further ado, here’s the answer for 8th graders:

Basically, this isn’t bad. We do pretty well among our peers, and our scores have been improving steadily for the past two decades. The full report is here, and it has lots of interesting tidbits.

It’s worth noting that there are two big international math tests: TIMSS and PISA. The United States usually does fairly well on TIMSS and not so well on PISA, which claims to be more about concepts and actual problem solving. If your ideological preference is to show that American kids are doing fine, you’ll focus on TIMSS. If your ideological preference is to show that American education is a cesspool and needs massive reform, you’ll focus on PISA. Take your pick.

One other note. If you really want a takeaway from the latest TIMSS test, it’s the same as the takeaway from every other test ever administered to America schoolkids: we do a terrible job of educating black children. The single biggest thing we could do to improve education in this country is to cut out the half measures and focus serious money and resources on poor, black school districts. But I guess the white working class wouldn’t be very happy about that.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily crazy—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America will move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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