In the first-ever international comparison of advanced math skills, a team of Stanford and Munich researchers found that American students rank 31st in the world, falling behind those in most industrialized nations.
Only 6 percent of U.S. eighth-graders perform at the advanced level in math, compared with 28 percent of Taiwanese students and more than 20 percent of students in Hong Kong, Finland and South Korea. The scores of American students match those of students from Lithuania, Spain and Italy.
The picture is even worse in California, which lags behind the national average. Just 4.5 percent of the students in California are performing at the high level -- a percentage similar to Portuguese students.
The report, called "Teaching Math To the Talented," notes that much effort in recent years has gone to helping struggling students -- but there has been far less attention to those who are good with numbers.
"This is a terribly important problem," said educational economist Eric A. Hanushek of Stanford's Hoover Institution, who co-authored the report and has met several times with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to urge strengthening the state's math curriculum.
"If California is going to continue to be the center of innovation for the nation, it is going to do it with imported skilled workers, either from other states and other nations," he said.
"We are not growing enough of our own."
Strong local schools like Cupertino's Lynbrook High and Palo Alto's Gunn High "are good within California -- but there's a bigger world outside of California," he said.
Maintaining the nation's productivity depends on developing a cadre of scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and other professionals, according to President Barack Obama.
"We should not ignore the top end -- because the top end is very important for innovation and the future of our economy," Hanushek said.
The study, sponsored by the journal Education Next and Harvard's Program on Education Policy, was conducted by Hanushek; Harvard public policy expert Paul E. Peterson, also a Hoover Institution scholar; and Ludger Woessmann, professor of economics at the University of Munich.
It analyzed scores of 15-year-olds in 56 nations on a 2005 test called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which includes questions on algebra, logic and basic computation. These students graduated in the class of 2009.
The percentage of students scoring at the advanced level varies across the 50 states. Students from Massachusetts do best, ranking similar to German and French students. They are followed by students from Minnesota, Vermont, New Jersey, Washington and Virginia.
The U.S. -- and California -- have very heterogeneous populations, which have been blamed on lowering academic performance.
So the researchers also examined two U.S. subgroups conventionally thought to be well-prepared for school: white students and students from college-educated families.
White American students were outscored by all students from 24 other nations. In California, only 7 percent of white students are high achievers -- roughly the same percentage as all Lithuanian students.
Even children of college-educated parents don't measure up particularly well. When compared with all students in the other countries, this advantaged segment of the U.S. population was outranked by students in 16 other countries.
"It is not a story of immigrant or minority students hiding the strong performance of better-prepared students," according to the report.
To view the full report, visit http://educationnext.org.
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 408-920-5565.
2. Hong Kong
3. South Korea
9. New Zealand
10. Czech Republic
23. United Kingdom
31. United States
Sources: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, PISA