New International Benchmarking to Measure State and District Student Math Performance Against World

Image of Second Derivative report coverWashington, D.C. A new international grading index that provides states, school districts and policymakers with a way to determine where their students rank in comparison with their peers around the world finds that U.S. elementary school students show average performance, at best, in mathematics and are widely outperformed by their counterparts in several Asian countries, including Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong SAR and Japan.

This new approach to benchmarking simplifies international comparisons by grading the countries, states and school districts with a comparable system that is more familiar to policymakers – grades of A, B, C, D, or BD (below a D). The study assumes that the international benchmark, against which we should calibrate our expectations and monitor our success, is a grade of B.

The report, issued today by the American Institutes for Research (AIR), based on international performance benchmarks in math for 4th and 8th grade students concluded that only 4th graders in a handful of states – among them Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Kansas and Vermont – are learning at B or B- levels when compared with students internationally.

At Grade 8, only Massachusetts achieves a grade of B.

“The Second Derivative: International Benchmarks in Mathematics for U.S. States and School Districts, is the first national report that captures the essence of what Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and others have mentioned about international benchmarking,” said report author Gary Phillips, a vice president and chief scientist at AIR. “This grading index achieves the important goal without adding any significant additional costs for states or the federal government.”

The study was sponsored by AIR, a non-profit, non-partisan research organization, as part of its mission to provide relevant research to policymakers and practitioners seeking to improve school performance.

Phillips, who also served as the acting commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education from 1999 to 2002, and is nationally known for his expertise in large-scale assessments and complex surveys, said the grade of B was chosen as the benchmark because it is statistically equivalent to the pro?cient level recommended by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) and No Child Left Behind (NCLB) as the level of performance we should expect from our students.

“These Asian nations consistently perform at the B+, B, and B- levels,” Phillips said. “Their students are learning mathematics not just at a higher level than students in the United States, but at a level that is a quantum leap higher.” The math proficiency average for U.S. students is C+ in grade 4 and C at grade 8.

In an increasingly competitive global economy in which skills are a pathway to opportunity, the report averred, the findings are cause for concern, recounting President Obama’s belief that “the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow.”

“The highest achieving countries are so far ahead of us, we will never catch up if we run at the current pace,” said Phillips. “Our states and school districts should no longer be comparing themselves to their neighbors. They will be competing for jobs and innovations with students around the globe.”

“The race to the top starts with knowing where we stand and how high the bar is over which we need to jump,” he added. “Establishing state or national thresholds uninformed by what is happening around the world is like flying without radar.”

In rating the performance of states and school districts, the AIR report found even more cause for concern, noting “a general tendency among the states and districts to drop in performance from grade 4 to grade 8.”

By Grade 8, for example, five major school districts (Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, the District of Columbia and Cleveland) had fallen from C grades to the D+ level. Previously only the Washington, D.C., school system held this distinction.

Similar drops do not occur among the high-performing Asian nations.

“To get a feel for how far ahead these countries are, we compared the 4th grade students in the highest achieving country, Hong Kong, to those in the United States,” explained Phillips. “The difference is comparable to the difference between the highest achieving state (Massachusetts) and the lowest achieving state (Mississippi). That is a huge achievement gap.”

The report cites several reasons why the international grading system employed by AIR is a good choice for comparing educational outcomes within the context of a global educational environment.

  • The grading system is a familiar metric and is intuitively understandable to the public and policymakers.
  • The grades are connected to rigorous international benchmarks. This is indicated by the fact that only a few high-achieving countries and states received a B grade and no country or state received an A.
  • The international benchmarks that underlie the grades were established through an international consensus process and have a scientifically based criterion-referenced interpretation.
  • The grading system is comparable across Grades 4 and 8, across years of administration, across countries and now, as a result of the AIR report, across states and school districts.

One especially disturbing finding the report cited was “that there are a relatively large number of countries in which the students are performing at the BD (below D) level of proficiency.” A few countries do a good job of teaching mathematics to the overall population of students, but in many countries the average student is not learning much mathematics.

“No one believes international benchmarking is a silver bullet that will solve all the problems with American education,” the report concluded. “But it certainly should be at the front of the list of strategies for making improvements.”

The full report, along with an online tool that compares the ranking of individual states with foreign countries, is available on the AIR Web site,