Despite lackluster achievement on the latest rounds of PISA, TIMSS, and PIRLS exams—and despite Fordham’s own premonitions of a new “Sputnik moment” for U.S. education—much complacency still surrounds American pupils’ academic prowess. One oft-cited source of false comfort is the gradual uptick in NAEP math and science scores over the past few years. This latest report from the international-education trifecta of Eric Hanushek, Paul Peterson, and Ludgar Woessmann argues for renewed sobriety. It tracks student-achievement growth in forty-nine countries (1995-2009) and forty-one states (1992-2011). Overall, increases in U.S. student achievement are middling, with twenty-four countries making greater gains. Over the fourteen years analyzed, U.S. students advanced about one year of learning, which is less than half of the achievement gains registered in more than twenty nations (including Hong Kong, Germany, the United Kingdom, Poland, and top-improvers Latvia, Chile, and Brazil). What’s most interesting about the report, though, is the analysis of state improvement over time. Maryland made the most progress, with Florida, Delaware, and Massachusetts following closely behind. Iowa, Maine, and Oklahoma, meanwhile, found themselves at the bottom of the pile. If the U.S. as a whole had equaled the progress made by its top-improving states, we would be on par with Germany and the U.K.—and would find ourselves among the top advancers worldwide. There’s much thought-provoking data to cull here and still more trends and patterns to ponder. Among them: Southern states (especially those with ardent education-reform governors in the late 1990s) boasted strong improvement while Midwestern states (which have been reticent to engage in education reform until recently) saw the smallest gains. What’s more, gains could not be linked to increased spending nor explained away by theories that initially low-performing states were simply “catching up”—which accounted for but a quarter of registered improvements. You should have a look.

SOURCE: Eric A. Hanushek, Paul E. Peterson, and Ludgar Woessmann, Achievement Growth: International and U.S. State Trends in Student Performance (Cambridge, MA: Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and Education Next, July 2012).

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