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Is America Falling Off the Flat Earth?
their high-school diplomas. The United States still leads in the fraction of the population’s 35- to 64-year-olds who hold college degrees (in any field), but it ranks seventh among 25-to 34-year-olds. For every American elementary and secondary school student studying Chinese, there are 10,000 students in China studying English. China already is the largest “English-speaking” nation on the globe, although English is a second language. When I visited China in the late 1970s, English lessons were being given over the loudspeakers in the street cars. How long do you suppose US commuters would tolerate mandatory Chinese lessons on their way home from the office?
The situation in science and technology is particularly perilous. In the Program for International Student Assessment tests of students’ ability to apply mathematical understanding to real-world problems, US 15-year-olds finished in 24th place among the participating nations. US 15-year-olds finished in 18th place in science. In a test of basic knowledge of both mathematics and science, US 12th-graders finished below the students of 18 other countries in math, and 15 in science. In yet another test, American 8th-graders ranked 9th in science and 15th in mathematics, behind Estonia and Malaysia. The earlier (1999) Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study found no country with 12th-graders scoring significantly below those in the United States in mathematics and only one in physics. Of US students who take the ACT college-entrance examination, a self-selecting and presumably more highly achieving group, 78% are deemed unqualified for college-level work in reading, mathematics, or science.
In a 2005 test of science understanding administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, 32% of US fourth-grade students performed below the “basic” achievement cutoff level (the lowest of three levels defined for the test). Among 8th-graders, the share increased to 41%. By the 12th grade, the fraction of underachievers had grown to 46%. In mathematics, the same test revealed that fewer than one-fourth of high-school seniors perform at or above their grade level.
An examination of the trend over time is no more encouraging. In the abovementioned test of mathematics understanding, the proportion of American high-school seniors scoring below the “basic” cutoff level in 1996 was 31%; in 2000, it was 35%; and by 2005, it had grown to 39%. Recent changes in the test’s methods reduce the confidence one can attach to the trend analysis, but it seems clear that the average level of mathematical understanding attributable to high-school seniors is low and not improving, and these results exclude the 1 million students who are generally not among the top performers and drop out of high school each year.